About a week ago my wife and I went to a nearby coffee shop to sit and read. We got coffee, of course, but our central objective was to relax (maybe sink into a couple of nice comfy lounge chairs, the ones right by the fireplace in the corner, kick off our shoes and rest our toes on a couple of ottomans, set our cups of Joe down on the tall slender side table between us), and read. And, we were able to do that. We were there a solid two hours and weren’t interrupted once. Another woman came along somewhere in the middle and did the same, not speaking, talking on the phone, or moving around a lot. We just sat there, the three of us, and read.
I don’t recall the last time I was able to do that. I had made an attempt in the not-too-distant past, but it didn’t workout quite like the coffee shop.
On February 17th, I was on a military base awaiting my ride to take me out of the gates for the last time. I had some time to myself so I wanted to make some progress in a book I was reading. If you’ve never read any of David Mitchell’s work, I’ll have you know it’s a far cry from Dr. Seuss. Graduate-level textbooks may even be easier on your comprehension gears than Mitchell. I mean this all in the highest admiration as he is one of the more verbally masterful authors of fiction I’ve read, ever. It simply needs mentioning that his prose isn’t easily absorbed in environments rich in audial friction. The book was Cloud Atlas, and the long and short of it was I needed a place where I could read undisturbed.
Not allowed to return to my room after morning roll call, I headed over to the cafeteria for breakfast. I customized my tray with a meal of my choosing and found a seat at one of the unoccupied sections at the back of the dining room. Clatter found me as soon as I opened my book – plates and trays being set down, FOX News broadcasted across every cell of airspace in the room, and conversations going on all around me. No problem, I thought, it’s still early. Surely there was a library or a quiet book nook in the vicinity.
After the second roll-call (we had three a day – Ludicrous, I know.) I skipped the cafeteria, both for the food and to avoid the collisions of noise. There was a small Starbuck’s Coffee I knew of a short walk from there, so I decided to try that. A small open table positioned just outside the wall separating the contracted coffee spot from the base shopping center seemed nice. I grabbed a seat and, nope that wouldn’t work – espresso machines spewing, people walking in and out of the doors, overhead announcements from the shopping center…time to leave.
The next spot was the bowling alley, which housed a small Taco Bell Express. Between the shouts of a Japanese Woman’s Bowling Club and the calls for border-runners to pick up their orders, I went to the next spot…and the next, and the next, until I decided to give up the reading plan altogether and go to the gym, which, on a military base, worked out magically.
One of those stops was what seemed to be an office or conference building. I found a bearded civilian office dozing behind his computer screen in the front office. Walking up to him, his eyes opened, and I asked, “Excuse me, I was just wondering if there was a quiet place around here where I can sit and read.” He looked at me as if I had proposed to feed him doughnuts through his ass. What was the deal with this place? There was no library, no quiet coffee shop, no free room open, I didn’t understand it.
Why? Why is it so hard any more to find a quiet place to sit? Reading, actual leisure reading, used to be encouraged in public; it was one of the pastimes of society for pleasure – a social norm. Why are there no places like that (other than a public library)?
Yesterday I read an interview from a fairly well-known author. He stated his thoughts on reading in general and how the printed word on the way out. Everything’s “E” now. E-publishing, E-reading, E-books, E-commerce, E-business. Jesus! What happened to “R”egular shit? Have our attention spans waned from the printed page so much that we’re beginning to define sophistication by what’s on a computer screen? Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet. I could play on this thing all day long (I do sometimes), but I love books. If I had a choice between a laptop and a book to wrap myself up in on a cold night beside an active fireplace, it wouldn’t be the former.
But, quiet places, places where you can hear your own thoughts, maybe they’re gone, or at least on their way out, becoming the rarities of the world. They say ‘as the world turns, you must turn with it.’ That depends. Because, they still make fireplaces in the world, and if I can find one of those and some quiet time. I’ll be kickin’ off my shoes. I’ll be comfy.