1. Archive


There's an Irish proverb that goes: "Firelight will not let you read fine stories, but it's warm and you won't see the dust on the floor."

Nice thought, but no help to legions of serious readers of a certain age - over 40, say -who don't care how much dust they can see as long as they can see the print on the page.

There's nothing better than a good book, and nothing worse than not enough light by which to read comfortably.

The culprit isn't always aging eyes, but typically that ordinary table lamp outfitted with an ordinary 60-watt bulb.

So what exactly makes for a top-notch reading light?

Michael Berman, a lighting designer for the California-based Lamps Plus, which sells hundreds of varieties of lamps to shed light on the printed page, says a good reading lamp should do three things:

1. Reduce peripheral shadow around the reading area to reduce eye fatigue

2. Provide good illumination, but not too much

3. Eliminate squinting

"As you get older, the muscles in the eye don't work as well," Berman says. "They don't focus as well in dim light."

The placement of a reading lamp is important, too, he says. If you like to read in bed and use those wall-mounted halogen swing lamps, place them 30 inches above the bed for optimal illumination.

Floor lamps are an excellent choice for reading, also, but make sure any lamp you choose has the right bulb, preferably a full-spectrum bulb.

"There are some fantastic full-spectrum bulbs out there, and they're the bulb of choice for reading," Berman notes.

Table lamps should be adapted with table-top dimmers for better adjustability for readers, and the bottom of the lamp shade should measure at eye level when the reader is seated. Also, try to have other lights in the room that can be turned on in addition to your reading lamp.

"You don't want shadows around the reading area because as the eye wanders off the page as you read, the eye has to adjust," he says.

Never consider any bulb less than 100 watts for reading, he advises, with 150 watts being ideal.

And just what does he think of those little clip-on book lights for night-owl readers (the grownup equivalent to reading Nancy Drew by flashlight)?

"They're great if you're going camping," he says with a laugh, but don't use them all the time.

At Levenger, the company known for selling stylish reading tools as well as some serious lighting for serious bookworms, experts recommend always using a reading light with a halogen bulb, "because you get a greater span of light and warmer light," says Kevin Percher, a Levenger assistant product manager.

"We get a number of e-mails from people who are extremely serious readers to the point that their eyes are in pain," Percher says. "We try to come up with products (that) concentrate and increase the intensity of light and banish glare."

A true reading lamp, by definition, is one that concentrates light. A lamp, like a chandelier, provides more ambient, diffused light.

"When reading, you want a light that helps you focus on the task at hand," Percher says.

Does that mean that a reading lamp has to be a dreary style offender, an industrial plain-Jane better suited to an office than home?

Not at all, says Sharon Duprey, senior designer at Ethan Allen on N Dale Mabry.

"There are all kinds of reading lamps, from casual to formal, from floor and table lamps to the adjustable kind where you can raise and lower the lamp and swing it," she says.

Reading lamps are now available with bases that include wood, metal and ceramic. Stylish options range from Hemingway-inspired lamps to "kicky and fun" retro lamps that hang over the bed, she says.

"But, remember, you want the right type of lighting at the proper height, space and size," she advises.

"You also want a lamp placed at the correct angle, so the light isn't in the eye and so that you can focus on the page."

Duprey says that often clients will come in with a lot of ideas about how they'd like a room to look, but few thoughts about lighting that room.

"A lot of times, I'll ask open-ended questions about how the family uses that room - do they have avid readers, people who just like to watch TV?"

A mix of lighting that includes overhead lighting, classic table lamps and good reading lamps allows readers to enjoy the room with others.

Says Duprey: "You can really have a lot of fun with these lamps now. There are so many options available."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at