Why do we have this strange insistence on reading being a quiet activity? From the age of about 5 children are more or less forced to read in silence, a silence that stems from terrifying threats of being let out late to break if there is even so much as a snigger. It is no surprise that many children grow up to see reading as an activity lacking in ‘fun’, and worse still, as an activity for the geeky, shy people at school (I was one of them). Libraries, and I don’t just mean university ones, are eerily quiet. Whilst many libraries have spaces for discussion, the main area designated for reading is filled only with the sounds of the turning or a book page, or the near-audible stares of the librarian. Lest you be the person who chooses to crunch your way through an entire bag of crisps, or (oh, just the thought makes me cringe) the poor soul who forgets to put their phone on silent.
But WHY is it that reading is so deeply associated with the noiselessness of hushed libraries? I know some people prefer absolute silence, but don’t you ever have a moment where you’re reading and you come across something that you just want to talk to someone about?! This happens to me ALL the time. It may be something I disagree with, something that’s made me laugh, or something that’s just perfectly summed up whatever argument I’m making in an essay – for me, a good bit of reading generates discussion. Yet, if I’m tucked away in my bedroom or nestled in the deepest corners of JB Morrell, this topic of discussion is destined to stay in my head, and will probably be forgotten by the time I have anyone to talk about it with. The seminar room is really the only chance I get to talk about my reading, and this only happens twice a week, and is only an opportunity in the first place because I’m doing a whole degree in reading. Why is it that this discussion is hemmed within the walls of a seminar room, associated just with English students or book group members?
The 18th century is a good place to look to for inspiration. This was an era that saw the emergence of what German sociologist Jurgen Habermas labelled as the ‘public sphere’ with the cultural phenomenon of the ‘coffee house’ playing an integral role. These were essentially spaces where people from all walks of life (this is a bit problematic because they were restricted only to men and those who could afford entry, so not exactly all), could come together to talk about what they were reading. Reading gradually tip-toed out of the ‘private sphere’ spaces of the drawing room and study, becoming a public, and indeed a social activity. Reading began to involve a dialogue between people, bringing with it an exchange of ideas that ignited the fire of critical debate. Discussing literature was a method of self-improvement, a way to educate yourself on what it was to be a good citizen, all the while assisting in the development of new critical ideas.
If coffee houses and the dialogue about reading that they generated played such an important role in 18th-century culture, why can’t we apply this principle to our reading today? Can’t we transform the library in to a place of dialogue, a place where ideas, thoughts and opinions are exchanged? Or if not the library, why don’t we have cafes or bars designed specifically for reading and talking about reading? What we really need is to bring back the 18th century coffee house, but to open it up for everyone, rather than just for rich men. Surely these would be spaces of innovation, and wouldn’t it just make reading a bit more ‘fun’? Chatting about your reading can be nothing but beneficial. Talking is the best way of thinking things through, and you never know, a book-related-chitter-chatter filled library or cafe could give birth to a new critical movement as flourishing ideas are discussed. It could be the next cultural phenomenon – let’s try it.