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AT ISSUE: Reading rooms

Meditations on the page-turning experience

Riding the bus with Sherlock

by Diane Georgopulos FAIA

A curious feature of humans is how we can simultaneously feel two diametrically opposite things. It was 1972, and I was a student in cold and damp London. I was assigned the largest room in a hall of residence on Stanhope Street in Highgate, which overlooked the garden. Lest you be impressed, it was also the most expensive room to heat and light. I observed in myself the switch from initial shock of surrealistic oddities, like the small sink in my room, to regarding this innovation as an intelligent amenity. It had a little tank attached to it that required shillings to produce hot water. The heat and lights operated on the same diet of coins. I wore out pockets in sweaters and jackets from the weight of coins I needed to keep on hand. In a country that invented the concept “rising damp,” my strategy was simple: stay warm and dry, and carry a pocketful of shillings.

Psigologica Biologica,
by Barbara Wildenboer, 2012.

In my travels to University College London, I went back and forth on the bus, which was cheaper and cleaner than the London Underground. I found that if I got the seat closest to the heater on the upper deck, I would be warmer than I would have been in my room. I usually had a book. The other passengers were always politely respectful of reading as a signal for privacy. A book on a bus was as good an insulator against uninvited conversations as a woolen sweater was against the cold.

On weekends, I took day trips that I could reach by public transit. I recall one excursion to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, southwest of London. The ride was more than an hour from my digs in north London and a huge bargain in terms of cost because of the sights that could be seen along the way in relative coziness. We snaked through narrow streets in a staccato rhythm of lurches and stops. My traveling companion that day was a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. They were so absorbing and full of intensely descriptive, minutely detailed, and vividly reflective scenes of a London that I could observe by merely lifting my eyes off the page.

At the end of the ride I arrived at the fertile ferneries of the Victorian greenhouses at Kew. No one could be impassive to the opulent eccentricity of this tropical paradise under glass. Shielded from the gray day outside, luxuriant orchids and exotic foliage flourished incongruously under the iron ribs of the elephantine enclosure. I sat on a bench that was nestled under giant fronds in the Palm Court, blanketed by warm air. While reading, I could hear the dew drops from the ferns landing as soft thuds on the moss. Later, as I made my exit from this giant terrarium, it was only to be slapped in the face by the cold and wet, the rain like needles against my cheeks.

When the bus came, I snuggled into my favorite seat to devour the last two stories. Every few pages, I’d lift my gaze to the slick black streets and asphalt skies punctuated by yellow halos of sodium vapor street lamps. I could imagine Sir Arthur’s tall, thin figure in his deerstalker hat appearing and then vanishing like smoke. To this day, that ride with Sherlock Holmes is one of my warmest memories of my time in London.  ■

Shelter from the storms

by Peter Miller

I remember the first phone booth I went into that had been defiled. Until that moment, in 1963, it was understood that a phone booth was publicly private. You would shut the folding door and know that you had a moment to talk. It was a public refuge. No one felt so disenfranchised that he or she would violate such a simple luxury. That time, of course, has not only passed but itself has been defiled.

Building Houses,
by Aaron T. Stephan, 2007.

It may seem that a place to read a book is in the same, though perhaps slower-moving, danger. Picture a photograph of a high-tech entrepreneur seated in front of a bookcase with a can of Coke, perhaps a game manual, and even a Slinky on it. But no books — the lad is moving too quickly, too nimbly to be burdened by the pace of binding and pages. He is after faster game than that.

It is a noble, subtle warrior, the book. It has a touch, a smell, a breath, a texture, and a thousand other particles of itself that swirl about, like the swirl of spring or the flick of stars.

Years ago in my shop, I pulled out a book on the construction of Indian tepees in Oklahoma and thought about how abandoned the book seemed. That afternoon, a man came in, went to the book, and bought it immediately. No one had looked at it in years.

The book is the proud source, the tree trunk, the glacial rock and till of word and image. E-books are a TV dinner alternate. E-books may, in fact, save the very privilege and heritage and life of books. One will have a battery, and one will be a book. One shall serve and take up slack, and one will push on.

Fear not for the book; you may as well fear for trousers and shoes, collars and pillows. But it is no longer a given that the conditions for reading will remain. You need a place to read, a shelter from electronics, bells and whistles, blinking lights and tinkling keys, pop-ups and alerts. There are a million commercial flickers out there, and as many more on their way, all vying to catch your eye, your thought, your interest.

I have books all over my house, shelved or in small piles, and some titles may take years to make a connection. If I have books near a good light and a good seat, away from any draft, offline from obvious noise, then my odds get much better. If I don’t hold off the body snatchers of 1,000 original television serials, nothing will get read.

In a sense, reading, or writing, or drawing, is your only alternate to the electronic army. It is the only other — no one can go with you; it is your privacy. You must be able to concentrate and be alone, and it is not easy to be alone anymore; we have not the habit of it.

If a plane was late or a ferry missed, if a train had miles to go or a heart was broken, then, for a moment, you were alone. But now, at the first flicker of alone, we reach for the cell phone and the isolation vanishes. One day, we will try to measure what was lost when much of the world was no longer forced to ponder, to gaze, to be alone. Once, it was a habit to read and rooms were naturally private. For now, we must be careful to save a little privacy, for our own time. Come, you can sit next to me.  ■

Into the Woods

by David Macy

In 1907, the MacDowell Colony was founded to offer artists time and space to create. Today, 32 studios are scattered across hundreds of acres, each well lit and simply appointed to suit various modes of creativity. Nestled in the woods or on the edge of a meadow, the studios, whether half-timbered or built of fieldstone, are organic architectural products resulting from a century of trying to create the ideal workspace.

The only adornments on studio walls are rows of pine tablets, some age-darkened beyond legibility, filled with handwritten names of those who’ve previously animated the space. Leonard Bernstein said that in winter the studio quiet was so complete that he could discern the sound of snow falling from upper branches of the white pines onto those below. While writing The Skin of our Teeth, Thornton Wilder stepped out of his MacDowell studio to find diligent ants constructing a new anthill, a sight that brought tears to his eyes. The structural autonomy provided to the artists — and the three meals a day — afford freedom to observe and refine praxis, to seek a natural rhythm.

Poets’, novelists’, and playwrights’ studios include two desks and cork walls for storyboarding. Composers are offered a baby grand piano. Interdisciplinary artists, filmmakers, and animators can request blackout capability. Visual arts studios — also used by architects and interdisciplinary artists — have high ceilings, northern light, and generous wall space. A few studios are specialized, providing essential tools for photographers, printmakers, and sculptors. And if enclosed space constricts, most studios include a screened porch, a daybed, and a chair: places to read.

It's common knowledge,
by Rune Guneriussen, 2009.

Artists often ship their books in advance of arrival, planting a flag before taking up residence. A fellowship of less than eight weeks focuses the mind: how to prioritize creative work, research, and participation in the community. Looking at many artists’ experience collectively, a typical arc describes the use of time and space:

Day one

Thrill of validation (Willa Cather wrote at this desk!) tinged with fear of failure-to-launch.

Wary first-dinner interactions at Colony Hall; protective veneer in place regarding self and intended project, possibly related to fear of failure.

Retire to bed soon after dinner to finish the book begun in transit, bedroom door bolted and lights burning against the rural darkness.

Day seven

Anxiety set aside as surprising volume of new and exciting work mounts in the studio (or, minimally, a contact high drawn from peers’ after-dinner presentations).

Raucous dinner conversations and meetings of minds in the library.

Creative studio work in overdrive; reading mostly confined to lunch (soup-stained pages a small price to pay).

Day fourteen onward

Vulnerability becomes a friend in the studio during seemingly endless workdays.

Appearing as if by magic, new friends and books provide insights that are plowed directly into the work. Nightstand crowded with books recommended or written by dinner companions; unhelpful books and people set aside without regret.

Last three days

New topic creeps into conversations with brand-new/age-old friends: How to connect post-MacDowell? Books already boxed. (Note to self: Borrow packing tape from front office.)

MacDowell concentrates two circumstances that are increasingly scarce in contemporary life: a banishment of distractions and a manifest respect for artists in the act of making. Though the woodland silence surrounding the studios is perfectly suited for reading deeply, there is too much work to be done when you finally hear yourself think.  ■

Spaces of the imagination

by Lian Chikako Chang Assoc. AIA

I’d like to say that I read in a conservatory, with the earthy tang of tomato plants hanging in the air; or on a shaded terrace overlooking some tranquil body of water; or by a fireplace, with my feet warming on the hearth. But the last time I opened a physical book, it was wedged in front of my laptop at the edge of my desk, its pages held in place with my forearms as I hunched over, skimming passages and typing out notes.

This is not reading so much as scraping for citations. For more open-ended encounters with texts, I’m rarely at my desk. I don’t have a favorite place for reading; rather, I read to remove myself from place and time. I might be squeezed into an airplane seat, in line at the grocery, or wide awake in bed. Everywhere I go I have my phone, and with it, reading material ranging from text messages to Twitter to e-books.

Moon Pops: 8 Haiku, Jack Kerouac,
by Vince Koloski, 2007.

I recently went shopping for an armchair. I tested tasteful and comfortable chairs, chairs that invite you to settle into a posture of composed comfort with a hardcover book or a genteel interlocutor. I didn’t end up buying. I decided that such a chair would see little use, except as an aspirational placeholder.

As a child, my family was fortunate enough to have both armchairs and books, and I often read, but I did so on the carpeted floor of my room, or perched at the dining table among stacks of encyclopedia volumes, or in the washroom, where there were always issues of National Geographic. Now, as then, I read in a range of postures and places. A glance at my smartphone can pull me into a journey, away from the tedium of a doctor’s office or the awkwardness of a standing-room-only subway car.

The space of the phone is reassuring and inviting: always the same, but with the possibility of going anywhere. Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet law at Harvard, has suggested that our habit of withdrawing to the familiar space of digital devices may result in us asking less of our built environment. I can see this happening: I check a hotel’s Wi-Fi before I concern myself about lobby amenities, and I often consult my phone for navigation before turning to physical landmarks and the position of the sun. I know that technology can addictively fill every empty moment when we might do better to just breathe.

In other ways, I’m not so sure that everything has changed. I remember reading paperback novels as a child while riding the bus or walking down the street; and I remember being told to put down my book at dinnertime. The power of reading, whether the text is printed on a physical page or glowing from a smartphone screen, is that it can transport us to different times and places. These spaces of the imagination are my favorite places to read, and they are just as virtual, and just as real, as they have ever been.  ■