This Is No Time To Read Alone

My silent reading party begins the same way every week, promptly at 6 p.m., with the now very familiar initiation of a Zoom call. A piano player’s hands appear in close-up among the gallery of boxes on my screen. His set list, a mix of Eric Satie and Radiohead instrumentals, will be the only sound. Like the windows of a New York City apartment building at night, other boxes soon come to life. People are in their homes, on their couches or in bed, all with a book. A hundred, then two hundred, absorbed in their reading, muted.

There’s a gray-haired woman at her kitchen table, more daydreaming than reading. There are couples, some eating bowls of pasta; a mother and daughter snuggling on a sofa; a woman petting her dog in front of a fireplace; a young man and woman sitting in armchairs dressed in a suit and sequin gown, martinis in their free hands. One week, I counted five cats, nine dogs and 22 glasses of wine. Inside one unforgettable box was a woman lying on her red leather couch, her book resting on her chest and her eyes closed — she’d fallen asleep. This lasts two hours. It’s mesmerizing, found performance art.

The event is organized by The Stranger, the Seattle alternative newspaper most famous for Dan Savage’s sex columns. Silent reading parties have taken place for several years in a local hotel, but when gathering together became impossible, like so much of our public existence, the party went virtual. As a result there has been, besides an ever growing number of participants, an intensification — an experience, Christopher Frizzelle, an editor at The Stranger, tells me, that is “both more intimate and more public than the live event, which is such a confusing contradiction.”

I’ve noticed this paradox too. I’ve plunged into a world of online bookishness over the past few weeks, surprised by my own need for communion through reading. Craving dinner in a crowded restaurant, a random encounter in a subway car, the feeling of being swept up in laughter while watching a movie in a theater, I understand. But reading is so solitary. I hadn’t anticipated that I would miss doing it with other people.

The world before was full of boozy book clubs, pretentious readings at the back of cluttered bookstores and graduate seminars to discuss French social theory or Victorian novels. The very idea of a public sphere, as originally (and tortuously) defined by Jürgen Habermas, has its origin in 18th-century coffee shops where it was shared newspapers that gave people a chance to discuss the happenings of the day.

Zoom will never replace any of this. But by simultaneously emphasizing our physical apartness and collapsing that distance by bringing us right into each other’s homes, up into each other’s faces, it reminds us of something we may have taken for granted: that the social function of reading is strange. An inherently private act — sounds that we hear in our own heads — binds us together. It never occurred to me quite how peculiar this is.

The other day I was taking part in a literary salon called Les Bleus hosted by Paige McGreevy, who started these gatherings in her living room as a newcomer to New York City and now continues them virtually from Nairobi, where she was recently posted with the United Nations. Every week, a handful of authors share their work — that week Kevin Nguyen read from his debut novel, “New Waves,” and Emily Nemens from hers, “The Cactus League.” I suddenly realized I’d never had the experience of watching in close-up such a large group of people actively listening, not beside me focused on an author behind a podium, as they would be in a normal reading, but all looking out at one another.

There was one woman laughing more aggressively than everyone else. A few people closed their eyes. “You can really be yourself and listen in a way that is comfortable to you,” McGreevy said. But mostly it resembled that silly acting exercise where two people mirror each other’s movements. The humor or sadness or moments of boredom seemed to sweep across our faces like a wave at a baseball game, or maybe we were just all responding to one another’s responses, truly listening as a group?

I know Zoom fatigue has long since set in, but there is democracy in communicating this way, especially when it’s in the terrain of books, a world intimidating and mystifying to the non-author. The Quarantine Book Club was started in early March by a husband and wife team of designers, Mike Monteiro and Erika Hall, who host an author a day. I’ve been joining occasionally and there’s a core of a few dozen regulars from all over the world — including a man named Ali from Tehran who stays up into the middle of the night. “Everyone is wearing pajama pants and sweatpants,” Hall said. “And everyone is at home. People will ask a question and if you were in a bookstore in front of other readers you might worry that your question wasn’t good enough or smart enough. No one is self-conscious anymore.”

One author told us, honestly and a little painfully, from the floor of her bedroom where she was seated cross-legged, “I’m sure this will be my only book.” Working on it, she said, “I felt the profound limits of my own intelligence.”

There was so much vulnerability on display in these video conferences. But that’s what reading together is, a deeply vulnerable act. To capture what you love (or don’t love) about a book, you have to be attuned to your own interiority — the way a collection of words hits you — and then you give it to others, never sure if these feelings will be shared or slapped away.

For me, as a child, reading began as something covert and solitary, under the covers by flashlight. My immigrant parents would catch me hidden on the weekends around the house with a book and yell at me to do something useful. In many ways I became my own person when I found other people whom I could talk to about books. One of the things I miss most these days is the daily chatter of my colleagues at the Book Review — passionate declarations of praise or detestation, discovering an older work that’s someone’s favorite, the gossip.

I thought often, in these past weeks, whether in the Borderless Book Club, which was established in March to devour a new novel in translation every two weeks (next up: “Arid Dreams” from Thailand) or during an evening of verse organized by the Academy of American Poets, about how community really does accrue around shared writing, particularly in repressed environments. Dissidents in the Soviet Union built and then kept alive an entire shadow civil society by passing from hand to hand illegal essays and short stories typed out on onion skin paper.

Image

It’s fitting, perhaps, that my immersion in all these virtual book gatherings began when I joined a group in March that has been steadily reading the works of Hannah Arendt. She was especially concerned with how we constitute a public world. The group is run by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and has existed online for six years. When coronavirus hit, the center opened the group up to anyone interested, which is when I hopped on. They were beginning a new book together, her little known “Men in Dark Times.” Roger Berkowitz, the head of the center who leads the discussion, said participation tripled from around 30 to close to 100. There are Arendt scholars in the mix, but a majority are retirees and students. Berkowitz says there are leftist activists and Trump supporters, too, a “community,” his word, that “wouldn’t have a lot holding us together outside of this book group.”

I’ve looked forward to these online meetings every Friday, when for nearly two hours we discuss one of the chapters in a book that contains essays about thinkers like Karl Jaspers and Rosa Luxemburg, whom Arendt admired for bucking the ideologies of their time. It’s not just that the group is helping me understand Arendt, a philosopher I’ve always wanted to read, but I enjoy seeing everyone sitting at home in front of their bookshelves, some a little too close to the camera, some reclining in big easy chairs, others eating a snack, bringing snippets of their own life and thoughts to the discussion.

When I spoke with Berkowitz he paraphrased an evocative metaphor Arendt uses in “The Human Condition” that seemed uniquely apt for our current moment of isolation. “When you have a group of people sitting around a table talking, the table is what makes them a group,” he said. “And if you take the table away, they’re just individuals, they’re not connected.”

Is Zoom our table? Without it we would all just be people reading in our houses alone. With it, we are the people who read books together. Whether this will sustain a public world, as Arendt would surely hope, is hard to tell. We have no choice but to try.

Gal Beckerman is an editor at the Book Review.

Follow New York Times Books on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *