52 Adventures #32: Silent Together

In the late 1970’s, a new item was added to our elementary school’s daily schedule. “Sustained Silent Reading” or simply “Silent Reading” as the teachers called it. Classes would pause mid-afternoon and the entire class would read silently together – whatever books we liked. The idea was to encourage a love of reading – something I already had a great deal of. So for me, being given 30-40 minutes of my school day several times a week was like a dream come true. The class would become silent save for the occasional sound of a page turning as we all dove in to separate worlds. Some of us would read books from the Weekly Reader Book Club, others books we’d found at the library in the classroom. After some time, our teacher would quietly inform us time was up. Slowly the students would come back. Stuart Little would drive Kathy back to our school in his little car, Mike would wave goodbye to Harriet and Sport and catch a New York subway that mysteriously had a stop in our classroom, and Sam Gamgee and I would finish our second lunch and I’d say goodbye. For the rest of the afternoon, my mood would be influenced by having spent time reading a book I loved.

Decades passed, and during that time my reading waxed and waned with how busy my life was, and lately, how compelling the Internet, my smart phone, and social media were.

Ironically, one day last October my smartphone gave me a notification about a news story. With all of the data Google had, it knew I was heading for India soon and told me that something called a Silent Book Club was now regularly happening in Delhi. The idea was intriguing. Participants meet in a cafe and then, just as I remember doing in 1978, they sit together and silently read. Unlike many book clubs, there is no expectation that everyone will read the same book and discuss it. There is time set aside for optional discussion of books that everyone is reading and of course before or after the event itself, participants can socialize freely.

I did not find time to visit the club in Delhi, however I was very excited to read more about it. The idea, described on their website as “Introvert Happy Hour”, started in San Francisco 2012 and has since spread to dozens of cities in thirty countries.

In January I meet up with the Toronto chapter which meets at a bookstore / cafe / record store called Press Books, Coffee, and Vinyl, a cozy spot smelling of a delicious combination of used books and coffee. Several tables are pushed together with space for about a dozen people. I’m warmly welcomed by Vickie, the organizer, and introduced to several of the other participants. I grab a coffee and a scone and take a seat.

Though I’d read some time ago about the Toronto chapter’s activities, I’d forgotten the agenda and was a bit taken off guard by the format. Every meeting starts by going around the table. Each participant introduces themselves and then has 2-3 minutes to talk about what they’ve read recently and what they are planning on reading today. I quickly make a few notes about what I had read earlier in the month and in December and then listen in to everyone else’s impressions of what they’d read recently. The diversity of books was so interesting and inspiring. (You can see a full list at the Silent Book Club’s entry for my first visit here). Up until now I haven’t had a chance to talk to many other people about what they’re reading and so I’ve relied on following my own whims as to what I generally enjoy. This has meant reading so many travel memoirs, a little self-improvement non-fiction, a tiny bit of history, and the occasional fiction piece. Hearing about the great reads everyone else was enjoying is doing an excellent job of getting me out of the literary echo chamber I’d put myself in.

After everyone has had their chance to talk about the books they’d recently been spending time inside, it is time to read. We all go silent and I notice that Joni Mitchell has been playing on the cafe’s turntable. The atmosphere is lovely. It isn’t just reminding me of childhood Sustained Silent Reading time at school, I am noticing it is something that I rarely get to experience these days: the experience of sharing comfortable silence with others. Very often with friends and family there’s a sense that if we’re together there must be a conversation happening. This is most definitely not the case here. I’m happy to be in the room with others but I’m also happy to simply be able to read and share space with them.

Fifty-five minutes in to the reading, Vickie gently raps on the table signaling that we have five minutes left before our hour of reading together is up. I appreciate this little bit of notice as it allows me to gently return from my read. The five minutes pass quickly and we end the session with a series of photos of us with our books for sharing on the Toronto Silent Book Club blog – anonymized to preserve everyone’s privacy. I’m less concerned about my own privacy so I have a second photo taken that clearly shows me with my read.

For the curious – that book was hit and miss. There were some fantastic stories – and others that left me cold.

I have been to one more Silent Book Club meeting since then – this time with Sage who enjoyed it tremendously. The biggest thing I notice after this experience is how much I have enjoyed rediscovering reading. Over the past several weeks since the first meeting, I have read literally hundreds of pages more than I was regularly reading. And the more I spend reading, the more I notice others doing the same. A few mornings ago I had an impromptu “silent book club” experience at 6:00 AM on the bus as I joined a line of three other people all in a row reading our books together.

This experience, along with my visit back to 1987, has created ripples throughout my life well beyond this – watch for an entry on this subject in the very near future.

If you’re inspired to find a Silent Book Club chapter in your own area, check out the Silent Book Club map. And if there isn’t one, learn how to start your own here. To my friends in India: take note – there aren’t many chapters there yet, but I have readers in both Delhi and Bangalore (including HSR Layout and Whitefield) who may enjoy visiting those events. If you do, please share what it’s like – I’m very curious to hear how the chapters differ)

10 thoughts on “52 Adventures #32: Silent Together

  1. That certainly is preferable to the “silent phone staring groups” that seem to be everywhere. This silence is companionable and I enjoyed reading about it.

    1. True. That said, our whole family is noticing that this is becoming less common and we’re seeing more and more people reading books. It’s exciting!

      1. So true. Also that has been in my head since reading this after you posted it. But the instrumental version as that is what I played several times every summer as a teenager in our town band’s concerts.

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