Guiding Light

Which book light outshines the others?

The sort of people who use book lights—book lighters, if you will—are not to be trusted. The device itself, remember, is intended for surreptitious reading. If these people have nothing to hide, why do they sneak off to a dark corner with their tiny, battery-operated lights? Why do they continue to read after their spouses have gone to sleep? What, exactly, are these book lighters planning?

I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s something.

It is with these suspicions in mind that I set out to discover which of these seemingly benign gadgets is best (and by “best” I mean “most threatening to our democracy”). It wasn’t easy. Night after night, I sequestered myself in a darkened room with a stack of books and a bag of triple-A batteries. I tried them on books of varying sizes, from slim paperbacks to weighty hardcover tomes. I read until my eyes grew tired or my brain was full, whichever came first. I carried the book lights with me on airplanes. I waited until my wife was asleep, and then I quietly switched them on. Yes, it made me feel dirty. But one must become one with the book lighters in order to truly understand them.


Shine On (10 possible points): Light quality is important. Some lights are too bright, or uneven, or unpleasant. Points were awarded for a gentle, even light; points were docked for lights that are too harsh, too dim, or don’t illuminate the entire page.

Portability (10 possible points): If it doesn’t slip easily into my backpack, or seems like it would break if jostled, then I’m not interested.

The Sleeping-Spouse Factor (10 possible points): Stray light that might awaken a significant other, thereby leading to interpersonal strife, will not be tolerated. The light should shine on the page, nowhere else.

Design/Ease of Use (10 possible points): The buttons should be convenient, the batteries easy to replace, and it should generally be nonannoying to operate. Bonus points if it looks cool.

Here are the results, from dim to bright:

Small Gooseneck Reading Light, $1.95 When you pay $2 for a book light—or anything, for that matter—you don’t expect much. By that standard, this book light is a huge success because it delivers very, very little.

For starters, the light is harsh, uneven, and fails to fully illuminate the page. The neck is wobbly and irritating. The on-off switch is strangely sharp, causing pain each time you use it. And it broke after an hour or so.

If you really can’t afford a better book light, let me suggest a candle. Or a match. Or a jar full of lightning bugs. Anything but this awful, awful book light.

Shine On: 2
Portability: 3
Sleeping Spouse: 5
Design/Ease of Use: 2
Total: 12 (out of 40 possible points)

Ultra Optix, $9.99 Similar in style to our worst book light but considerably less crappy. The Ultra Optix casts a pleasant, even light, and the clip fastens securely to the book. It’s easily adjustable, too, and works well no matter the size of the book.

Here comes the big “but.” When you grab the base, which you must do in order to attach it to the book, the battery cover will slide off. This happened nearly every time. In other words, when you use this product as it is intended to be used, it will fall apart in your hands. As a bonus, sometimes the batteries fall out too, and then you’re forced to fumble around in the dark. And believe me, no good ever came from darkened fumbling.

To make sure I wasn’t crazy, I asked my wife to give it a try. The battery cover fell off for her as well, thereby proving that, at least in this one respect, I am not crazy.

Shine On: 8
Portability: 6
Sleeping Spouse: 8
Design/Ease of Use: 2
Total: 24

I-Sight Over-Ear Book Light, $24.95 As a rule, I prefer my ears to remain unadorned and free of unnecessary encumbrances, so I was biased against the over-the-ear book light. But you know what? It’s less terrible than I thought. Because it’s on your ear, not your book, you don’t have to adjust the book light when you turn pages. And naturally, because it is attached to your ear, the light shines wherever you are looking. This could be useful if you were, say, reading several different books in the dark. (Though, if you really do need to read several books at once, allow me to suggest a well-lighted room.)

One drawback is that, because it is so small, there is room for only one battery, meaning that it will die more quickly than most other book lights (which usually use three or four batteries to produce a similar amount of light). It also fails the sleeping-spouse test; it’s too easy to accidentally shine the light somewhere other than the book. Finally, wearing a book light on your ear may seem too dorky, even for those like me who are already fairly dorky.

Shine On: 6
Portability: 9
Sleeping Spouse: 4
Design/Ease of Use: 7
Total: 26

Zelco “Itty Bitty” Book Light, $35 I was prepared to give the “Itty Bitty” high marks. It’s everything you want in a book light. The light is even; the design is elegant. It also folds down and slips into its own case, making it easy to carry in a pocket or purse. It stays securely attached to the book. The adjustable neck works well. Sounds great, right?

Here’s the thing. The clip that holds the light to the cover of the book peeks up slightly. This matters because the clip is made of shiny metal and that shiny metal reflects light. So light shines back in your face. At first, I thought I could adjust the clip or reposition the book so this would be less annoying. Nope. Still annoying.

You could, I guess, put some masking tape over part of the clip so light won’t reflect. But do you really want to invest $35 in a book light that you have to modify in order to comfortably use? Let me answer that for you: No, you do not.

Shine On: 8
Portability: 9
Sleeping Spouse: 9
Design/Ease of Use: 3
Total: 29

LightWedge, $19.95 The advertising material for the LightWedge encourages you to “imagine the perfect book light.” It is a fairly ingenious product. Turn it on and the glass panel lights up. The idea is that because only the panel is illuminated there will be no stray light. I tried it out on a recent plane trip, and indeed, the lawyer snoring next to me was not roused. My wife also continued to slumber undisturbed.

The LightWedge comes in two sizes—one for hardcovers and one for paperbacks. I tested the paperback version, and while it works fine on small paperbacks, it is less than satisfactory on larger paperbacks or hardcovers. You have to continually shift the panel so that it illuminates the portion of the page you’re perusing.

In addition, if you press the glass flat against the page, it creates little wavy shadows. So for optimal performance, you have to remember to tilt the wedge up slightly. It does look cool, and it doubles as a decent bookmark. But better book lights exist, and not just in my imagination.

Shine On: 6
Portability: 8
Sleeping Spouse: 10
Design/Ease of Use: 6
Total: 30

Beam & Read, $19.95 There is nothing hip about the Beam & Read. It’s black and blocky, and it hangs around your neck. The photos on the packaging show it being used by old people, and it seems very much like a senior citizen gadget.

But it also happens to be remarkably useful, blessedly simple, and once you have one, you won’t want to give it up. Seriously. I love this thing.

Because it hangs around your neck, you don’t have to worry about clipping it onto the book or mess with it when you turn pages. You can also lay it flat on a table and use it as a kind of mini-lamp. I’ve also found myself using the Beam & Read for nonliterary purposes, such as descending into our poorly lit basement, or ascending into our equally poorly lit attic. It would be especially handy in a power outage.

My only beef, and the only thing that keeps it from being the overall winner, is that it’s a little too bright for using next to a slumbering companion. But on the whole, I’m inordinately fond of the Beam & Read and plan to buy several more as gifts. How’s that for a testimonial?

Shine On: 9
Portability: 8
Sleeping Spouse: 6
Design/Ease of Use: 10
Total: 33

Zelco “Itty Bitty” Slim Book Light, $29.95 While I have special place in my heart for the Beam & Read, our overall winner is a better book light qua book light.

It doesn’t clip onto the book; instead, it fits snugly over the spine. Some of the other book lights leave behind little indentations on your pages. This may not be a big deal for that thriller you’re going to toss anyway, but it matters for that first edition of The Great Gatsby you bought at auction.

And while it’s larger than most of the other book lights, it’s less troublesome to use because the body remains flush against the spine of the book. The flexible neck can be pushed down into the body, making it easily transportable and tough to break. And it feels sturdier than the others. Perhaps most importantly, it puts light exactly where you want it, and nowhere you don’t.

By the way, the box promises that the LED bulbs will last for 100,000 hours, which works out to more than a decade. I’m going to have to trust them on that.

Shine On: 9
Portability: 9
Sleeping Spouse: 9
Design/Ease of Use: 10
Total: 37