The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2015 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com, or b&n.com.
I WORK IN A SILENT ROOM. A fact that I realize is rare and precious. It’s not cork-lined, but I understand the impulse.
This room is inside a building whose very name used to define quiet: a library. Not just any library — the New York Public Library. The marble heiress with pet lions on either side of her wide steps, where people linger even in the bitter cold. Where tourists take selfies and New Yorkers pretend not to notice the occasional photo shoot with beautiful creatures shivering in expensive clothing.
This room — the one I work in — has three long tables and four chairs on each side with cushions that drift from one to another as needed. There are shaded lamps, high windows, a coat rack, and a radiator that knocks and hisses without shame. In the center of the room is a large dictionary on a wooden stand. Cheap metal bookshelves line the walls. For now, one of those shelves belongs to me, and I have filled it with books, a sweater, a notebook and pen, a certain brand of toothpicks I have become addicted to, and a pair of headphones just in case. Separated from the rest of the room by a flimsy panel is a smaller table with a green-glass lamp and chairs on each side so that two people can use the alcove if they want more privacy. Nobody sharing either of these spaces is allowed to claim the same chair to work every day, but as with a classroom, people have their favorite spots.
I’ve never been able to write in coffee shops. I am too much of a magpie, easily distracted by every shiny thing. The song lyrics, the monologue of the guy next to me who won’t let his companion get a word in, the barista who is trying not to be bored: all of this is more interesting than my work, which I have to listen for in order to get anything done. I know people who only write in coffee shops. I know people who write at the kitchen table. I even know a novelist who writes in the bath (his laptop balanced on a wooden board — he keeps the water warm by reaching for the hot-water faucet with his toes).
Me, I don’t care about anything but silence. But I live in the city. I was born in this city and fell asleep to the sound of sirens. I can sleep anywhere: on the floor of an airport, on wooden risers in a theater during a long tech rehearsal — but I need quiet to write. Before I had the luxury of this private study room, I tried the branch libraries. My children were younger then: we were living in an apartment, and though I’d made a “study” for myself by emptying a hall closet and dropping the lowest shelf on top of two shallow filing cabinets, I could only place a chair at my desk when the closet door was open. It worked to a point, except it was too easy to keep walking down the hall past my closet to the urgency of laundry, toys, dishes, dog, goldfish, and pet rat.
The branch libraries are filled with children, which is as it should be. (I still remember getting my first library card and the terror when I lost it.) But when I was trying to work at my local branch I noticed that the librarian no longer shushed the kids. No attempt was made to keep things quiet. I finally approached the librarian (of whom I was a little frightened; some things never go away) and asked why the children weren’t told to hush. She explained that the library had decided it could serve the community best by becoming an extension of overcrowded city classrooms. What could I say to that? I retreated to the second floor as she suggested, but I was much more interested in Horton Hears a Who! being read aloud downstairs than any story I could come up with.
Use headphones, everyone advised. Yes, but what do you listen to when you can’t listen to music? I downloaded a recording of the ocean that I put on endless repeat — but I don’t write on the beach. I found myself listening for the buzzing of insects (picked up for authenticity) and the stray call of gulls. By this time I was feeling like the princess and the pea. If I tried to tell anyone about my need for silence, I sounded like I was making up a convoluted excuse for not writing. Which perhaps I was, so I shut up about it.
But this is my year of silence. I am a member of the Wertheim Study, one of a few private reading rooms inside this marble building, which feels like the mother ship of all the other libraries in the city. I have finally found a room where there are disapproving looks if a cell phone vibrates. Where people set their books and laptops down with care when they settle in to share the table. We might nod or smile, but we don’t speak to each other. Even in another part of the library, we may briefly chat, but mostly the nodding and smiling is enough.
Working in silence has made me more aware of the loss of it. Like dark sky, it has become harder and harder to find a quiet public space. Is this why everyone wears earbuds? To control the soundtrack? Last week I saw a man crossing Flatbush Avenue narrowly miss colliding with a honking school bus. He had his headphones on and never turned around. When we no longer have silence we risk the skill of listening. I like the sounds of the city when I’m not trying to work, and like most writers what I call listening some would call eavesdropping. (Cell phones are a gift for a writer in the city. Wonderful for dialogue.) On the subway last week an old man spread out on the seat opposite me. The car was fairly empty and everyone else had their earbuds in place. He had a large bag, a cane, and was talking to himself. Suddenly he reached his cane across the car and swept a small object toward himself. It was a button. He picked it up and read out loud: “Be confident.” Be confident, he repeated a couple of times. Then he stood up and began an old-time vaudeville dance with his wooden cane. It slid through his knobby hands a couple of times and clattered to the floor. He picked it up, kicked the end with his sneaker, and caught it in the opposite hand. He used the pole like a dance partner, all the time murmuring, be confident, be confident. He still had the moves. He finished his routine at the next stop, picked up his bag, and got off the train. He never asked for money. He looked in the window from the platform as the doors were closing, and we smiled at each other. He waved as the train pulled out of the station. He was Chaplin; he was Fugard; he was Beckett. I may have been the only one who heard him.
Writing may be a sort of eavesdropping on myself, and I have to be able to hear. We’ve had some snow this winter, and when it snows hard the city muffles itself. Even in the Wertheim Study some people wear headphones while they’re working, but unlike other public places in the city, most of us have our ears open. Last week the jarring rush of tire chains and a snowplow went scraping down 42nd Street. Like a herd of deer, we all turned our heads toward the window. The clang of the world startled us into and away from the work. The snowplow passed with its familiar clatter and bang; then we turned our faces to our glowing screens and got back to listening.