The Sanctity of the Rose Reading Room (V1)
Each patron is exalted as a temporary exhibit featuring the books in their head.
Garrett Kincaid — October 27, 2022
I walked in intending to finish an essay-in-progress. But I should’ve known better than to come here with a strict agenda. Part of the appeal of this place is that it rewards aimless exploration. The space itself is a conduit for buried thoughts — the ones you have but have yet to share. And the thoughts this place excavated today are about, well, the place itself.
I’m sitting in the Rose Reading Room on the third floor of the New York Public Library in Midtown, and I’m writing about what it’s like to write in the Rose Reading Room (#meta).
Walking in and sitting down here is a ritual, which is necessary to maintain the integrity of this space.
The ritual starts 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 angle my gaze 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, who may very well be ordained. He isn’t there to deny me entry (there’s a seat for everyone in the Kingdom of Knowledge) but to remind me of the ritual. “Are you here for quiet study?” he asks. We reciprocate nods, mine of acknowledgement and his of approval.
I silently enter and search for a seat. From my other visits here, I recall how loud it was when 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. People come here to work toward something they value. People come here to take part in the long-held human tradition of trying to figure shit out before we die.
This place has no religious affiliation, yet it isn’t secular. It’s somewhere in between. It’s grandeur, its art, its customs suggest that we revere something by entering here. That something is knowledge. It doesn’t suggest a faith in knowledge or a worship of it, just that learning is a sacred practice.
In the center of the ceiling, which is at least five stories high, is a mural of the sky. The entire 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 the hundreds of us here are illuminating that scene. Our presence is why there is anything besides a dense, dark storm-cloud. The ceiling in 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 look down 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 means 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.
By labeling the chairs, 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. 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.
I have no idea what anyone else is 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.
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