When I turned eleven I got the much-anticipated parental okay to bike alone to the library. In my town the library was situated in one aisle of a medieval castle. The musty dark basement held prisoners’ cells – including heavy ankle chains and narrow planks of bad wood for beds. My imagination went crazy at the library and was kept loose as long as I didn’t talk aloud. As a matter of fact any noise was forbidden there.
Later in Paris, I spent a lot of time at the university library where silence was also the rule.
In the States libraries weren’t housed in castles anymore, but soft voices were required, too.
This is in a library in Palo Alto that I borrowed the very first book I read entirely in English. Located downtown, this library was a pause away from street traffic and people’s conversations.
Later, wherever we lived, I took my children so often to the library that all of them knew the French word bibliothèque before “library,” which in French (librairie) means “bookshop.” They also knew the word “Silence,” which is the same in French and English.
As for me this is in the quietness of American libraries that I discovered the American literature and that the idea to write grew in my mind.
And it is in libraries that I wrote the most. Away from the ringing of the phone, the rumbling of the washing machine, and the humming of the fridge I could fully tune to the sounds of words.
I appreciate so much the silence libraries offer that I started to resent the fact that more and more people don’t silence their cell phones in libraries and converse loudly and shamelessly.
There was one solution to my problem: the quiet room.
In every library the quiet room is the loveliest of all. In mine, in addition to the sleek contemporary tables and chairs and the individual table lamps, there are also glass windows, which open on the library but remain closed at all times. You get the view but not the noise. Silence, I thought, must be beautiful in there. But the access was forbidden to people using a computer and reserved to newspaper readers.
The librarians – always good at observing their customers – must have noticed that the number of people who still read the paper in its paper version is declining. Maybe they also saw me eyeing with envy the quiet room.
So very recently the quiet room opened its doors to people with computers as long as they remain mute – people and computers alike.
For the last month, I have taken full advantage of this change of policy. Each time I’m in the vicinity of the library, between meetings, appointments and school pick-up, I rush there.
Since everyone works in the quiet room, I have to mimic them.
The 2 000 words a day? No big deal in the quiet room. A completed draft before summer kicks in? Piece of cake in the quiet room.
Some kind of secret code exists between quiet room people. Because the room is secluded, it is also safe.
A nod, an eyebrow arched a certain way, or a finger pointed at a computer and then at the restroom sign are enough to ask and obtain permission to go to the restroom, return a phone call or get a cup of coffee at the nearby café without taking computer, bag and other precious personal belongings.
In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King writes that, although he works with blasting music for background, he doesn’t recommend the practice.
Certainly not to me, I’m sure.
In a world filled with phone ring tones, text tones, buzzing, beeping, swooshing sounds, and decibels, silence is precious because rare.
And a quiet room, I find, is the best gift from a library to a writer.