Shh, Silent Reading Parties Are Taking Over Phoenix

It was only a matter of time before sitting and reading a book got “branded”; turned into a trend involving a crowd and a coffee drink; conceptualized as something other than a private pastime.

Silent reading parties are now all the rage, and they’ve made their way to Phoenix. Changing Hands Bookstore has announced something called the Introverts Happy Hour, which launches on September 26. Next month, the Second Wednesday Silent Reading Club will première at downtown’s Grand Central Coffee Company. And entrepreneur Joey Robert Parks is hosting the city’s inaugural public reading party later this month at the newly redone Hilton Garden Inn.

The original idea is credited to Christopher Frizzelle, the editor-in-chief at a Seattle weekly newspaper called The Stranger, according to Parks, a Phoenix-based ghostwriter. Frizzelle’s concept was borrowed by another alt publication editor, San Francisco’s Dan Stone, who runs that city’s Radio Silence magazine. As tends to happen, the trend really took off in New York, where pubs and cafes began hosting happy hour events that asked patrons to show up with a book they might like to sit and quietly read to themselves while imbibing.

It sounds like something cooked up in the Saturday Night Live writer’s room, but silent reading parties are a real thing. “I love to read and I love to bring like-minded people together,” says Parks, “so I thought it would be fun to host something similar in Phoenix.”

Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler made his reading party at San Francisco’s Hotel Rex a fundraiser, and Parks took note. His event on September 29 will collect money for Sunshine Readers, a Phoenix-based nonprofit that sends adult readers to public grade schools to read to students. Parks is the fellow behind 26 Blocks, an ongoing art exhibit that pairs 26 writers with visual artists to commemorate randomly selected city blocks in downtown Phoenix. The reading party event sold out in a little more than a day; Parks is keeping a waiting list of people who want to sit in the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn and read while pianist Ben Scolaro tinkles the ivories.

“When the piano starts, the room goes quiet and everyone starts reading,” Parks explains. “No talking. No texting. Maybe passing notes. Just strangers sitting side by side, drinking and reading for 90 minutes. Even waiters during the event won’t speak. They’ll collect special menus that guests have filled out by checking off boxes. Payments will be run after the music stops.”

Quiet, Parks says, is the only hard-and-fast rule of a silent reading party. Books aren’t required; readers can flip through a back issue of Vanity Fair or The Wall Street Journal, and e-readers, mobile phone reading apps, and even trade paperbacks are all sanctioned.

“It's a great way to get out and share your love of books without having to engage and talk and be ‘on,’" says Cindy Dach, co-owner of Changing Hands. “It's just about reading and the intent to read.”

But what's the point of getting together with a bunch of strangers to read in a public place? “A reading party brings the challenge of acting like an introvert, something that maybe doesn’t come naturally to extroverts like myself,” Parks explains. “For introverts, maybe it's the opposite: doing something they love, quietly, with the challenge to do it in public, surrounded by strangers.”

Mostly, Parks says, it’s about unplugging for an hour or so. “The opportunity to isolate a block of time to read a longform story, like a book, is important. In our lives filled with short sound bursts of tweets, instant messaging, and social media, it’s a way of taking back our sanity.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela