Reading quietly en masse

December 28, 2010 | By | 6 Replies More

In one of the episodes of the original Twilight Zone television series, an introverted fellow is desperate to be left alone so that he can read books.  He loved reading, but he was driven to desperation because other people constantly interrupted his reading. In that TV episode, the introverted fellow got his wish, more or less.   Today I was reminded that hundreds of people can read quietly together. I witnessed this every day event at the main branch of the New York City Public Library. More specifically, I witnessed this phenomenon at the Deborah, Jonathan F. P., Samuel Priest, and Adam R. Rose Main Reading Room.

Photo by Erich Vieth

Here’s how the room is described at the library’s website:

[The reading room] is a majestic public space, measuring 78 feet by 297 feet—roughly the length of two city blocks—and weaving together Old World architectural elegance with modern technology. The award-wining restoration of this room was completed in 1998, thanks to a fifteen million-dollar gift from Library trustee Sandra Priest Rose and Frederick Phineas Rose, who renamed the room in honor of their children.

Here, patrons can read or study at long oak tables lit by elegant bronze lamps, beneath fifty-two foot tall ceilings decorated by dramatic murals of vibrant skies and billowing clouds. Since the General Research Division’s opening day on May 23, 1911, vast numbers of people have entered the main reading room. . . . In one of his memoirs, New York Jew, Kazin described his youthful impression of the reading room: “There was something about the. . .light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning smooth the tops of the golden tables as if they had been freshly painted—that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves.”

A few years ago, a friend urged me to visit this reading room, but it always seemed that when I happened to be in New York and when I happened to be walking by the main branch, it was after closing time. This week I found myself in New York for an extended stay thanks to a massive snow storm. Thus, there were no excuses. I was stunned by this spectacularly beautiful room filled with traditional table lamps and a most unusual collection of people.  They were unusual because they were so absolutely quiet.

Photo by Erich Vieth

As you can see from the photos, many hundreds of people were reading to themselves, as a group. It was most unusual sight, especially in modern day American where many of us simply cannot stop loudly loudly at each other.  Among those many hundreds of people at the New York Public Library today, I couldn’t hear anyone speaking loudly.   There were no people squawking about Hollywood gossip, sports scores or even the weather. There were no parents barking at their kids.  There were very few children, actually. The quiet was heavy and seemingly self-enforcing; it was like a church. The people using the reading room came here with the mission of reading and learning; you could read their mission in their faces. They didn’t look up when you walked by.  They didn’t care who else was there.  They weren’t there to be seen.

It wasn’t completely quiet: there were a few quiet murmurings at the periphery, but you could only hear these words if you walked the periphery.  Oh, and an elderly man sitting 5 seats down from me fell asleep on his book and started snoring. He snored quietly, of course, because this was a library–even his snoring was respectful. I asked one of the librarians how it was that the room stayed so incredibly quiet. She said that most of the people were serious readers. She added, “The library aggressively enforces the quiet.  We patrol the space and remind people of the need to be quiet.”

The atmosphere was sacred in the same way that moments of silence are sacred at sporting events. Perhaps I’m injecting too much into this experience, but watching almost a 1,000 people quietly read together gave me hope. Can this technique be exported across America, to help calm us? How would this not be a good thing to spread, a great thing, where large numbers of people would come together to mutually enforce the idea that “It’s not all about me.”  Why can’t more of us gather in large groups to display that we don’t know everything but that we’re here to do something about it.  Why can’t we mutually respect each others’ needs to reach out across time and space to those who wrote the books, many of them physically dead but still with us through the magic of those powerful little scribbles.

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Category: Communication, Quality of Life, Reading - Books and Magazines

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Ebonmuse says:

    Hey Erich, I didn't know you were in town. How much longer are you stuck here for, or are you already back in STL?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ebonmuse: I kept trying to get the next flight out, and I was promised the next flight and then it fell through. I didn't know I'd be hanging around for 1 1/2 days in snowy Manhattan. And then when I showed up at Kennedy for my flight last night, it was canceled while I was en route to the airport. I finally made it out this morning. If I had known I was actually going to be there for awhile I certainly would have looked you up. It was on the way to the airport that I stopped at the reading room, and it was a wonderful way to spend an hour. I'm jealous that there is no such place in STL.

  2. Ebonmuse says:

    Ah, OK – no worries. Glad to hear you were able to get on a flight back relatively easily. I've heard stories from friends who had a much worse time getting home!

  3. Cynthia says:

    Erich: I was hoping to have an account of how you got home, and what you did in NYC in the snowdrifts. Funny you didn't want to stay for the slush… M-i-l

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Cynthia: I had three American Airlines agents earnestly promise me that I'd be out the next day, three times. I ended up doing legal work in a small Manhattan hotel room for two days. My third promised flight (before the real one) got canceled in a cab on the way to Kennedy (the Air Tran shut down). That caused me to backtrack via Air Tran (reopened and subway to Roosevelt station, where I hiked north two miles, stopping en route for a burrito at a delightful restaurant in a Spanish-speaking part of town. I stayed in a "cellar" room at a motel right next to LaGuardia While in Manhattan, I visited the Natural History Museum and the awesome reading room.

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