Every first Wednesday of the month at 6:00 p.m., the Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel goes quiet and fills with people—crazy-haired, soft-spoken, inscrutable, dorky, NPRish, punk, white, black. The reading public. It fills right away, all these people who don't know each other, and they sit very closely, sometimes three strangers to a couch. By 7:00 p.m., you can't get a seat.
The party spills into the foyer—there's a table for chess or whatever near the elevator, and two people sitting there, staring into books. A reporter for the Shoreline Community College newspaper showed up the last time to ask about the event, but it's not much of an event: Nothing happens. No one ever addresses the room. No one reads anything at you through a microphone. You just sit and read and get waited on, and leave whenever you feel like it. And Manhattans are on special—$7 until 9:00 pm.
You can read whatever you want, and it runs the gamut. Two reading parties ago, a business lawyer next to me was reading that day's New York Times. An art critic was reading A Brief History of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist. A singer/performer/musician was reading Moby-Dick. A furniture maker was reading Where We Live Now: An Annotated Reader, edited by Matthew Stadler. Charles Mudede was reading Walter Benjamin, possibly for the billionth time. An investigative journalist was reading Robert Greenfield's Exile on Main St., about the Rolling Stones recording Exile on Main St. A food critic was reading Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, a drunky 1950s New York novel gorgeously republished recently by NYRB. A woman at the next table was reading Michael Lewis's The Big Short. Someone else was scribbling in a notebook; there's one in every crowd.
The insane thing about a party where you're not supposed to make small talk is that it makes you want to make small talk. You almost can't not do it. (But what a relief to not have to!) If you go with friends, someone will quietly explode over what they're reading and you will want to know what it is, or they will interrupt your reading and hand you their book and say, "Just read this—just this paragraph." At the last reading party, a man and a woman were sitting in leather wingback chairs in front of the fireplace, and he was reading Joseph Campbell and she was, well, listening to him whisper to her about Joseph Campbell. I unsuccessfully eavesdropped. I could only make out "theological shifts," "how we live," "ethical." Hearing "ethical" sent me back a few pages (in Nabokov's Pnin) to reread something I'd just underlined: "Some people, and I am one of them, hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically..." (I was happy to be reading Pnin and not Joseph Campbell. No offense to Joseph Campbell.)
Possibly these two were on a date. Other people in the room were clearly on dates. Still others were not on dates and glancing around the room, obviously in hopes of future dates. Something underrated blossoms between strangers who aren't talking to each other, especially if they are comfortably doing something together. And it can't be denied that watching someone read is sexy, seeing them unself-consciously concentrating on something else, wondering what they're thinking, imagining their brain folds forming. And yet there's also something sweet about the person who is reading a book in order to be seen reading that book, hoping someone will ask.
The Shoreline Community College newspaper reporter asked how it started: Annie Wagner (former Stranger staffer) and Brendan Kiley (still a Stranger staffer) and I used to read after work together at Brendan's apartment. Brendan always had tea and cheese and figs and tomatoes and dark chocolate and whiskey, and lived in an apartment with lots of chairs and lamps. We were all going to be at home alone reading otherwise; why not do it together? So civilized. So casual. None of the pressures of talking! Mixed with intermittent talking, when you couldn't resist! Then Brendan got a new apartment and Annie moved to Chicago and sometimes, walking by the Sorrento, I would think: We should do it there, and it should be open to anyone, and it should be free. And, helpfully, the Sorrento agreed. You should come next time. Bring whatever.