The Reading Room

Charlotte Farlow

April 26, 2022


I have in my care a great number of books, perhaps as many as there are words comprising the language in which the present text is written. My shelves are strong and lofty. My floors are old and polished. The footfall of centuries has not marred their shine. The few rugs I have remain immaculate, with majestic tassels, and not the least kink. There is little to temp passers-by inside, however. The entrance remains quite inconspicuous. Visitors may identify the small and shabby door only by its brass plaque, the size and shape of a playing card, which contains, engraved into its surface, the image of a lone feather, a little faded now but still perfectly recognisable. The occasional explorer will sometimes venture inside, without the required reservation and often under some wobbly pretext, or else quite innocently, having overheard an otherwise private conversation. “I understand,” he says, “you operate a wonderful lending library.” “We are not a library,” I insist, “and we do not lend our books.”

It remains for the most part silent in the reading room, but keen ears may catch at intervals the blinking of a book, the rubbing of a page, the opening, the closing, the stroking, the tapping of a cover — quietly, every so quietly. The room itself is not a large one, for there are no books stored here. They are stored elsewhere, in a much vaster space which rather resembles a great nave, only with shelves where pulpits might once have stood. The shelves, as I say, are tall. They soar to great heights, reaching almost the vaults of the ceiling, which in an earlier life the residents called the Underbelly. Upon uncovering the desired volume, readers proceed down the long corridor, tap-toeing as they go, through the seal of a velvet, violet curtain, and into the quietude of the reading room.

It is usually necessary to keep all windows closed, save for during those terribly warm spells which I have known to melt the glue from the bindings. This is for the simple fact that the city outside our walls produces a monumental amount of noise. It is an old city, a famous city, much celebrated, which possesses many natures. It is a city that the rest of the world has never been able to fully comprehend, least of all those who manage to visit. Only seldom are the curtains opened to allow the daylight, the dull grey daylight, inside. Lamps are very much sufficient for the willing reader, and in most cases superior to natural light, which is often too bright, and too vague about its direction. We have a vast selection of lamps available.

If I may, I should like to describe for the reader several staple figures who seem forever to inhabit our hallways. Mr. V, a stout intellectual, has warned me several times against the dangers of sitting in chairs, particularly when sleeping or reading. He elects instead to sprawl upon the rugs, usually in a corner, under one of the towering floor lamps, our most powerful illuminators. Mr. W, who refuses to publish his work and seldom speaks of his efforts, is a prolific author of obscure literary fiction. I have read on occasion the odd abandoned draft believed to be destroyed, and find them to be quite pleasurable, if not a little oblique. Mrs. X is a standing reader, a wandering reader, and rather a voracious one. She has described for me, in greater detail than I should ever have cared to consider, more books than I should ever have managed to read. Mrs. Y, husband of Mr. W, is perhaps the most expressive of all the readers I had ever the fortune to encounter. Excitedly, merrily, and without the least reservation, she goes gladly about with this and that volume, smiling at the spines, pondering, considering, and finally selecting — by what I know not — whichever title or cover or author has managed to snag her vision. Lastly, of course, I wish to describe Mr. Z, perhaps my most scholarly patron: a powerful German fellow who would not deign to touch a work of fiction, and chooses instead to pore over texts from earlier centuries, most of them frail, and some of them quite rare.

I do not know if it is solely my breed (that is, those who deal in words as if they were rubies) which takes such aberrant pleasure in the habits of fellow readers, in the scent of the paper, in the scenery of reading rooms. Perhaps the cracking of a fresh spine, the rolling of a new page, the marvellous act of reading, imbibing, digesting a sentence perfectly ripe and utterly balanced, appeals likewise to all. Then again, perhaps not. Visits by appointment only. Tours available. Donations welcomed. Enquire at 342 Rue... [an illegible address follows].