For years, people have been begging for more chances to come to the silent-reading party, where you bring whatever reading material you want and read silently while servers bring you snacks and a musician plays piano. We started doing it in Seattle in 2009, and since then it has been replicated in cities around the world, but we did it first, and we do it best. There's usually a line out the door before the party even starts.
On April 15, 2020, we held our first reading party on Zoom, and five times as many people bought tickets as can even fit into the Fireside Room at the Sorrento, where the parties usually take place.
"It would be the highlight of my lil quarantine life if the parties happened weekly," people wrote to us afterward. It was "nothing short of a miracle," another person said, adding, "I felt a tear slip down my cheek when it ended." Another said, "It was just lovely to see so many good human faces; many fondly familiar, many excitingly new, all subtly checking each other out with guileless smirks between flipped pages. Felt a little like a vision or whiff of life after this calamity."
If you're having trouble picturing the reading party on Zoom, here's what it looked like:
I love that guy's beach vacation background in the top left (perfect for a rainy day like today). That's performer Sarah Rudinoff in the upper right corner. That's The Stranger's business lawyer Bob Fikso in the lower left corner.
In the square below Paul's hands on the keys is Julia Sweeney, who enjoyed the party so much she recorded this video about it. In the lower right is Rachael Brister, executive director of the Provincetown International Film Festival. I don't recognize anyone else here, but that spread in the upper right looks amazing.
Roughly half the people at last week's party kept their cameras on, and half kept them off. In the upper right corner of the screenshot above is the novelist Jennifer Haigh. In the center square is the author Lesley Hazleton. In the lower left corner is the actor and musician Evan Mosher.
(I don't know who the others are, but if you're in one of these screenshots and you would like me to take it down, let me know and I will.)
Usually when people hear about the reading party for the first time, they have a lot of questions, so let's see if I can answer them here.
What kind of books do people read?
Whatever they want. Novels, nonfiction, mysteries, histories, poetry, dystopian sci-fi, Us magazine, children's books, Moby-Dick...
Sure! Whatever you want. Does Us magazine still exist? The point is, it doesn't matter what you read. The point is to set aside time for reading and then actually do it.
What's the coolest thing that's ever happened at the silent-reading party?
Oh, easy. The couple that fell in love coming to the silent-reading party. After three years of coming to the party on dates, Ryan (who's in the lower left in that Fireside Room photo above) proposed to Jessica at a reading party, and everyone else in the room looked up from their books and applauded when she said yes.
Does anyone read Kindles?
Yes. In fact, someone brought a Kindle to the very first reading party. This person just so happened to be Jason Finn, the drummer in the Presidents of the United States of America. The downside of Kindles is that people have a harder time glancing at your book cover and striking up a conversation about it, but there are no conversations at this party anyway.
Did you say children's books?
Yes, the reading party has always been all-ages.
But isn't it usually held in a bar?
No, it's held in the Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel, which is in a different room than the bar, so children can be there too. Anyway, those rules don't matter at the Zoom party, because you're at home, where the drinks and snacks are free.
What kind of music does Paul play?
His own very mellow arrangements of Erik Satie, Radiohead, Duke Ellington...
How does he play for two hours straight without taking a break?
He's very gifted.
Do some people end up just listening to the music and staring into space?
Yes. Every time Paul plays Erik Satie, I take a little break from whatever I'm reading, tilt my head back, and melt into my chair. Some people also feel inspired to write at this party, and get out their notebooks, and that is encouraged as well.
What if I need to do chores or make dinner—can I do that instead of reading?
Yes. Paul's piano playing would be nonpareil background music for those activities. During the first Zoom party, one attendee living out on Orcas Island with his partner had his mother over for dinner, and we all got a view of their candle-lit dinner with a view of water, and they got the reading party music as their ambiance, which is brilliant.
Isn't it weird not talking?
I think it's pretty fun to go to a party where small talk is not allowed. Not being allowed to make small talk weirdly makes you want to make small talk! Since you're going to be on mute, feel free to talk to whoever's in quarantine with you if you want—we won't be able to hear it.
Was the party popular from the very beginning?
The first party in 2009 was fairly crowded, but it wasn't until this piece about the party went viral on Reddit that we started seeing packed rooms with a line out the door. In 2014, the novelist Gary Shteyngart wrote in Travel + Leisure that "it's the best reading series in Seattle," which also helped get the word out.
So how does the party work virtually? How do I get in?
After you buy a ticket, you will get login information emailed to you shortly before the party starts. At the appointed time, you will be let into a waiting room, and from there you will be given admittance to a big Zoom group with people all around the world.
Will there be any kind of talking or introductory remarks?
Yes, I will say a few words about 10 minutes in, once we're pretty sure that everyone who wants to be at the party has arrived, but that's it.
What kind of drinks and snacks should one make at home to go with this party?
Whatever you want. If it's raining, my spread usually includes whiskey, cheese, figs, and chocolate. If it's sunny, I drink rose and eat almonds.
How long does the party last?
Two hours. But you will be fully in control of your experience and if you don't feel like reading for two hours, you can drop out at any time.
Who else should I tell about this party?
Anyone you know who knows how to read. My dream is to get the whole world to set aside two hours a week to read. Many people intend to set aside time for reading, but never get around to it. A little healthy peer pressure in the form of seeing people all around the world do this together could be good motivation.
Do I have to be reading the whole time?
Of course not. Sometimes I just can't get into my book, no matter how hard I try, and on those weeks I just stare into space, listening to Paul's music. It's like meditation or something.
What if I live in London and want to attend, but 6 pm Seattle time means 3 am in London?
Guess you'll have to set your alarm.
I love Paul's music and I want to give him a tip. How do I do that?
Please do! Paul's music is a miracle. And what he plays at this party is specifically designed to enhance rather than distract from the act of reading. You can tip him on Venmo or PayPal; his PayPal is email@example.com.
Okay, how do I get in again?
Tickets are here, available on a sliding scale. If you can only afford $5, pay $5. If you can afford $20, pay $20. Ticket buyers get an email the day of the party with login information.
What if I have a question you didn't answer?
You can shoot us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.