Light a candle to make light; read a book to become enlightened, quoth the ancient Chinese. The fact is, you need a little of both to get anywhere in this world.
If, like us, you spend a certain amount of time reading, you want enough illumination to bring the page into focus but not so much that you feel as if you’re having your teeth cleaned. Which brings us to the question: What makes a good reading lamp?
Truth be told, we had a hard time determining exactly what a “reading” lamp is. This is a gray area in the lighting industry, which officially identifies only four types: ambient, decorative, accent, and task. This leaves a conspicuously dim spot somewhere between lamps that work and lamps that simply sit, hang, or perch there looking pretty. Dispersing the darkness—without flipping on any grim overhead flourescents—we decided that pivoting, arachnoid, cubicle-climbing task lamps were a tad technical for the home, and too (for lack of a better word) task-oriented for tranquil flights into literary landscapes from the generous embrace of our favorite armchair. Though there are some crisp, leggy beauties out there (Italian manufacturer Artemide could single-handedly provide the content for an article on this topic), task lamps feel uptight and chilly. Indeed, it is in their nature to do so. They exist, as the Sylvania website so pragmatically describes it, to help you “perform a specific activity, such as reading or playing games, by concentrating light in a particular place.” Yawn.
We enlisted Stephen Van Dyk, chief librarian at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Library, to help evaluate lights that can multitask while making us forget that there is, in fact, any task at hand. These aren’t working lamps. They are lights that illuminate the kind of reading that is not a chore but an enchantment, a nourishment, succor, and a delight. Lights that might actually lead to enlightenment, of a sort.