Sometimes when sitting on the deck or out on my morning walk, I wonder what this place would have sounded like 100 years ago. Our house backs up to a park and it is fairly quiet, but we are also near a major artery and the dim sound of traffic is as constant in the background as the birdsong and insect chirps. We live under a flight path for helicopters out of the Pentagon, as well as an approach and departure vector out of Reagan National Airport so the spooling sound of jet engines is a frequent addition to the background noise. Along one of the bike paths in the area is an electric sub-station. Towers carry power lines along the bike path and there is a low, crackling hum that come from the wires above.
If I could erase the sound of traffic, the sound of the helicopters thwack-thwack-twacking, the sound of jet engines spooling above, the hum of the wires above the bike path, I wonder how the world here would sound? I was recently on a trip to Europe with the family and we spent a few days in the small mountain town of Engelberg, Switzerland. Early in the morning, I went for walks and it was quiet. There were cars on the road, but a lot more bikers. The sounds were more natural: the winds off the mountains, the trickling of water in the stream that passed through the town. I’m not looking for silence, but I’m looking for a way to eliminate the artificial noise. I think Engelberg was much more like what the natural world sounds like, although even there I found the sound of car motors to contend with.
I have in my imagination this ideal quiet place to read. Churches are good candidates as they are always quiet. Even in the depth of summer, when Venice, Italy is crowded with tourists, the churches we entered in the city were quiet within. Sitting in a pew, if I closed my eyes, all I could hear with the shuffling of feet and an occasional cough. But it seems a breach of etiquette to enter a church for the sole purpose of reading a book, unless that book is some form of the Bible. The book I had with me in Europe, Patience and Fortitude by Nicholas A. Basbanes might have been apropos, since it is all about the history of books, and bookmaking, including the copying of books by monks in cathedrals. Still, it seems a little weird, and I don’t know that I’d have the courage to do it.
Cemeteries are another quiet place to read, but they are also places that don’t seem appropriate for fun activities and reading, for me, is a fun activity. There is the big park that our house backs up to. I see people sitting in the shade of trees at all times of day with a book in their lap. Sometimes I see them in the distance and they look like a living Kindle logo. Whenever I see that, I tell myself, you have to do that, too. But so far, I haven’t done it.
Then, yesterday, it occurred to me that maybe a quiet place to read isn’t my ideal reading place after all. I was going through an old diary from 25 years ago, back when I lived in Studio City, a suburb of Los Angeles. For years, I had the habit of beginning each spring by reading the 3 volumes of Isaac Asimov’s memoir, first with his retrospective, I. Asimov, and then going back to the 2 larger volumes of his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. I tended to start these 3 books around April 1. As I was reading through this quarter-century-old portion of my diary, I came across the following from Sunday, April 5, 1998:
About 1pm, I picked up In Memory Yet Green, drove over to Swenson’s and, with a large chocolate shake by my side, started in on it. Spent most of the afternoon reading and I’m now 70 pages through it.
As it happens, I remember this very well, even 25 years later. It may be the most idyllic of my reading places in my memory. Swenson’s was an ice cream shop at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Boulevard. When you ordered a shake, you got a glass-and-a-half. I’d find a booth and sit there, sipping my shake and reading. It wasn’t particularly quiet. Bells jangled as people entered or left the shop. People at other tables spoke in hushed (sometimes not-so-hushed) tones, but there was something about sitting there with my shake and reading that particular book that made it about as perfect as any reading spot I’ve ever had.
I suppose that even if I could find a similar ice cream shop locally, it wouldn’t be the same. The memory is seeped in nostalgia and memories like those are impossible to compete with in the real world.
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