Silent reading: Turn off, tune out, shut the f*** up and read

I’m on the train to Flinders Street Station, heading for my first silent reading party and already I’m nervous. The STFU (Shut the Fuck Up) Reading Society’s official Facebook page reads: ‘We host silent reading parties because we want to allow for […] introverted or anxious people to join a no pressure social activity with zero expectations of social interaction or conversation if it’s not wanted!’ 

It’s a sociophobe’s dream.

But it’s the stuff of nightmares for people like me. We’re the kind who talk our way through unfamiliar social situations until we feel at ease. Conversation lessens our discomfort in the presence of strangers and helps us to establish our credentials in an alien environment. I’m uneasy at the thought of being vocally disarmed and vulnerable amidst a group of strangers. Discovering this vulnerability for the first time in the lead-up to the silent reading party is both a salutary and fascinating experience. 

And it’s not just the keeping silent I’m worried about. I have a terrible secret: I’m a fraud. I trade in words for a living, but for the past ten years I’ve struggled to finish a book. My concentration span has regressed to ten minute bursts of reading, and not very high quality reading at that. I’m seriously doubting my ability to stay the two-hour course.

I attribute the start of my inability to read to the emotional upheaval of marital breakdown.

This intellectual floundering began at a time when my personal life was similarly unanchored; adrift in the treacherous currents of separation and divorce. From being a highly organised working mother who was always able to lose herself in a book at any opportunity, I became the kind of mother who had to stop the car and ask her 20-year-old son to drive so she could cry. During those years, my head was so full of white noise, there was little room for anything else.

So it’s with some trepidation that I approach the group gathered near the Floral Clock in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens on the second Sunday of the month. It’s ten minutes to the hour, and a group of about thirty silent reading party animals are gathered under three magnificent palm trees. Determined to remain mute, at least for the first half of the session, I move to the edges of the group with the other silent singles and claim a patch of grass. 

I fumble amongst the contents of my basket – sunhat, sunscreen, snack, scribble pad – and pull out my rug-for-one. The complicated choreography required to shake it out and smooth it into a wrinkle-free rectangle without flicking the other outliers is almost beyond me. Finally, I’m sitting cross-legged with book at the ready. Thanks to some timely recent radio coverage and an active social media presence, today’s gathering tops the 40 mark when the clock strikes 11 and the official starting announcement is made.

‘It’s time to shut the fuck up and read.’

As if on cue, a PC-21 aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force begins the first of a series of low level flypasts just above our heads. It’s a long weekend, and Melbourne families are out in force. Eventually the rustling and re-positioning ceases and we become a quiet but cohesive crowd of reclining readers; an inadvertent array of attention-seekers. Tourists and small family groups stop to stare at the living art installation on the grass. 

I’ve chosen philosopher Damon Young’s The Art of Reading in a bid to regain my lost skill. One chapter in and I’m beginning to regret my choice, an ambitious one for someone with my level of concentration. Three chapters later, my head hurts and I’m itching to check my phone. It occurs to me – and not for the first time – that my shorter attention span corresponds with my increased use of social media. 

When the timer goes off at the 45-minute mark for a fifteen-minute break, I snap the book shut and look around for someone – anyone – to talk to. Steven, celebrating his birthday with nine friends, is all about ‘breaking the Instagramful life’. He finds it harder to read for long periods in a concentrated way, and likes the structure of a set time and place. It provides him with a ‘sense of obligation’ to show up. He, like me, has chosen a difficult read in An Introduction to Hegel: Freedom, Truth and History by Stephen Houlgate. Unlike me, he doesn’t regret his choice. ‘It’s easier here because there are no distractions.’ Except for your nine friends, I think, and envy his self-containment and his ability to concentrate.

The final reading session is a long 60 minutes.

When the final bell sounds, I know the party’s over for Damon Young and me. It would be a lie to say it was nice while it lasted. I knew I should have brought Jane Austen. I look around for Rachel Bettiens, the founder of the STFU Reading Society. A knot of people surrounds a vivacious dark-haired woman in an icy pole print dress. But before we get to introductions, the publicity beast must be fed.

Everyone squashes together to fit an Instagram-friendly photo square. Our books do the same. After the photo session, Bettiens and I discuss the irony of having to rely on an active social media profile to stage what is essentially a two-hour phones-down social media blackout. 

‘It’s funny,’ she says. ‘You use social media to connect people so you can then disconnect and then connect over disconnecting.’ She acknowledges that the success of the STFU Reading Society has stolen what once was valuable reading time for her. ‘If I’m at home and reading, I stop to take photos and craft a caption for social media.’ But by putting the phone down and switching off for two hours at today’s session, she got to page 72 of The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo. It’s part of her campaign to read her way through the Stella Prize longlist.

Escaping the tyranny of social media is one of two common themes amongst the readers I speak to. The other is the added appeal of reading in the company of like-minded souls – with or without making personal connections. STFU first-timer Peta shyly asks me what I’m reading. She admits to being bored by David Foster-Wallace’s The Pale King. We connect over our shared disappointment. Peta describes her fears that the ‘group psychology’ vibe might have been distracting, but the reality exceeds her expectations. ‘I would definitely come back,’ she says. ‘I didn’t feel like a weirdo.’ 

It occurs to me that I’m the only weirdo amongst this tribe of bibliophiles.

I want to tell them ‘I used to be one of you’. But I am even more conscious of my imposter syndrome in their company. A combination of despair and determination lead me to hold my own silent reading party a week later. The venue is my bedroom. To address the shutting-the-fuck-up aspect that poses such a challenge for me, I am the only guest. It lasts just half an hour.

Even without company, I find myself engaged in conversation with the voice inside my head, telling me to bring in the washing/start the dinner/polish the gravel/check my Facebook feed. I need to escape not one, but two demons: my inner monologue and the tentacles of social media. This may be a slow burn, but I’m determined to return to the fold.

So I set myself up a chaise longue in a sunny corner, like any self-respecting Jane Austen tragic determined to reclaim her reading mojo. On the coffee table is a pile of books – some old favourites, some new, nothing too taxing. When I close the door, my iphone, family and To-Do list stay outside. I start my silent reading session with Pride and Prejudice – a deliberately low bar – and surprise myself with the speed with which I devour it.

Two months and four books later, I’m out of rehab and – thanks to the STFU Reading Society and Jane Austen – on my way towards Alain de Bouton and complete recovery. Like Austen’s Miss Caroline Bingley, ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’

This story first appeared in The Big Issue #591 in July 2019

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