The Sanctity of the Rose Reading Room
Each patron is exalted as a temporary exhibit featuring the books in their head.
Garrett Kincaid – October 27, 2022 (Version 1)
*Revised on January 9, 2023
There’s no silence in the city.
Some sounds are pleasant, others painful. Within a minute in New York, you might hear a busking percussionist, a couple’s wistful conversation, and kids playing, or an unsolicited elevator pitch, a series of subway squeaks, and an aggressive street-corner monologue. Whether you enjoy a sound or despise it, you can’t escape it. But today, I did.
I’m in the Rose Reading Room, on the third floor of the New York Public Library in Midtown. This place is a sanctuary — a dream-reprieve from the reality of NYC. And like all sacred places, it requires a ritual.
The ritual begins on my way up the grand staircases to the third floor — an ascent akin to entering a recording studio. With each step, I dampen and distance the city-noise. As I make the turn and look up the slope of the final staircase, I see a massive ceiling-mural of Prometheus giving fire to the first men. But the true subject of the piece is neither the men nor the god but what Prometheus brings: the light of knowledge, the spark of consciousness. Just as a crucifix reminds Catholics of Jesus’s sacrifice, the third-floor mural reminds NYPL patrons of the object of value here: knowledge.
At the gates of the Rose Reading Room, I encounter a guard. Let’s call him Peter. He isn’t there to deny me entry but to remind me of the ritual. “Are you here for quiet study?” he asks. I nod. And with a wave, Peter opens the pearly gates.
I enter silently and search for a seat. From my other visits here, I recall how people would scoot their heavy, wooden chairs across the tile floor. Each sounded like a sustained note from a low-register wind instrument. So, as I go to sit, I lift my chair to maintain the silence. By sitting down, I join a community. I join a community of knowledge-seekers who have come here for the past 125 years to work on something they find meaningful.
This place has no religious affiliation, yet it isn’t secular. It’s somewhere in between. Its grandeur, its art, its customs suggest a reverence for something sacred.
In the center of the ceiling, which is at least five stories high, is a mural of the sky. The border of the rectangular scene is dark and foreboding. But the clouds soften and part along the middle to reveal a clear blue. It’s as if our presence is why there is anything besides a dense, dark storm-cloud above. The ceiling of the Rose Reading Room repeats the imagery established by the Prometheus mural in the rotunda. It’s another reminder of what we value here.
When I return from the ceiling, I notice that every seat is numbered by a label on the table. Today, I’m in seat 193. In another place, such organization would be a way to attribute units of output to an employee ID. “I work in cubicle 43.” But it’s different here; the numbers are humanizing rather than objectifying. The Rose Reading Room is concerned with inputs, not outputs.
By labeling each seat, the tables become extensions of the bookshelves that wrap the room. Every seat becomes an exhibition space, indexed in the library by date, time, and seat number — like a version of the Dewey Decimal System. Stored on our psychic shelves are anthologies of ideas, encyclopedias of experiences, fantasy and sci-fi dreamworlds, and fictions we assign to our pasts and futures. In the Rose Reading Room, each patron is exalted as a temporary exhibit featuring the books in their head.
This place is an amplifier for whispered thoughts — those that would otherwise be drowned out by city-noise. Surrounded by beauty and bathed in silence, my thoughts reverberate, inviting me to explore and cull them to create something that resonates.
I have no way of knowing what others are working on, but I feel that it is all worthwhile. I feel the variety of interests, the complexity of experiences, and the height of the ambitions represented in this room. And I expect myself to do good work beside my mute colleagues. Today, seated at 193, I’m inspired to append the bookshelf of me.
There is silence in the city; it’s just scarce. It’s sacred and must be protected.