House of Reading

In a 1988 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, the critic George Steiner wrote: “I would not be surprised if that which lies ahead for classical modes of reading resembles the monasticism from which those modes sprung. I sometimes dream of houses of reading—a Hebrew phrase—in which those passionate to learn how to read well would find the necessary guidance, silence, and complicity of disciplined companionship.

He continues: “To those raised to crave the stimulation of the screen houses of reading probably sound like claustrophobic prisons. For those raised in the tradition of print literacy, they may seem like serene enclaves, havens of learning and contentment, temples to the many and subtle pleasures of the word on the page.”

Steiner doesn’t have to dream of reading houses; there are, in fact, several scattered across the country. Several years ago David Halberstam wrote an article in the New York Times (December 19, 1997) about one--the Society Library in New York City. It described an independent, membership library that was part club, part collection of books, part haven for writers and readers. “It feels and somehow smells like an old-fashioned library, with old-fashioned lighting and a wonderful, rich reading room, filled as it is by Audubon sketches.”

According Halberstam, the library was a place for readers and writers to gather and work by themselves without being entirely by themselves. He says: “I don’t necessarily talk to them and they don’t necessarily talk to me, but for the moment I feel a little less alone.”

Wendy Wasserstein said that she had done much of her writing there. “The Society Library is an almost perfect place to work: it is pleasant, it is quiet, it has a surprising number of books that you may want and it is genteel. Besides the neighborhood is filled with a number of good places for a late lunch…”

What writer or reader has not wished for an old-fashioned library in their neighborhood like that? A private reading/discussion club with an open membership policy with quiet rooms to read, others to write, and still others for good conversation would, in my view, be a library at its best.

Warm wood-paneled walls of bookcases, row after row of richly-bound volumes, with their “intoxicating mixture of vellum, paper and dust,” as well as a speaker program and a few book groups.

Penelope Lively put it well in her recent book Consequences: “We are not just a library, you see. We are for members a sort of club, a refuge from the daily grind.”

A club or reading library like this has been called elitist. That is silly. Most memberships cost about $90-$100 per year. And there are no restrictions on who may join.

For a recent account of “libraries of gracious reading” see Anne Eisenberg’s article at: www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/business/yourmoney/11library.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Anne%20Eisenbert%20Libraries%20of%20Gracious%20Reading&st=cse.

A list of several membership libraries in this country is at: http://nysoclib.org/links.html. There is also one in Minneapolis: http://www.openbookmn.org and another in Seattle: http://www.hugohouse.org/house.

Is there a place for a library like these in the digital age? While the need for an insular club these days may seem debatable, it still has enormous appeal to me. What better way to maintain the culture of serious reading and scholarship than in these “serene” houses of reading?