1 May 2023, 08:40
“Reading together touches people,” the ‘Culturele Apotheek’ states on their website. I was able to experience this, during the reading group at the library in Rotterdam where I do fieldwork. With seven others, I got together to read. For me it was the first time; the others were used to being moved by reading together. We read, listened, chatted, and laughed.
‘There she is again,’ says the librarian when I appear on a sunny market day. To get to the library, I wriggled through the busy market. We started reading together on time. All the regular participants are in their regular seats. We do a round of introductions and it turns out that most of them are retired. The librarian has printed out three poems for us and explains that someone always reads the text aloud, and then they start a conversation about the text. The first poem is about a woman. The only thing we agree on and can observe is that the woman is not happy and longs for the past. What that past looked like is unknown to us.
The first text triggers a conversation that is about life and death, and everything in between. I am caught off guard by the philosophical turn. At the same time, I am reminded of how the library is changing from a ‘book library’ to a ‘people’s library’. The reading group is a reading-centered activity, during which the conversation about the texts makes the encounter (more) cherished. One of the participants talks about the many “almost encounters” we have on the street. These “almost encounters” make her happy, she says. That kindness, even if short-lived, can make someone feel seen. A sign of your existence.
The last poem is by Jules Deelder. It is only three sentences, but its length does not reveal its heaviness. Deelder concludes that “everything keeps passing.” After I read the three sentences silence falls. A participant starts and says this is similar to what we say a lot these days, “It is what it is.” Only what is “it,” when we are subjected to constant change? I sit across from three retirees who agree that there are so many elderly people who long for the past. “Life is a paradox,” says another participant laughingly. She had made this observation with the second text, but the statement keeps coming back. Only what do we compare when we talk about paradoxes? We only see differences and contradictions when something is in relation to something, there must be another or something else. Are we comparing ourselves to ourselves, or are we comparing ourselves to others around us? We ask questions but find no answers, yet everyone seems to be content with that.
The library provides a place for encounters, which can be short-lived, “almost encounters,” that can still make visitors feel good. The reading group is an example of a long encounter, where even friendships are formed. During this encounter, we acknowledge differences and do not dismiss similarities. Just as “all of life is a paradox” is laughingly observed, we can embrace differences and contradictions. Reading together turns out to be more than reading, by being together, just as a library has long been more than a place to read ‘merely’, precisely because of the encounters that take place there.