Object 34

Reading Rooms

2030, Melbourne, Australia

Understanding the changing role of books in spreading knowledge and ideas in the early 21st century requires us to examine the reading experience itself. Let's look at this contemporary account of Forster's Books in Melbourne, Australia, and its Reading Rooms.

By the 20s, Melbourne's out-of-town retail centres and malls had been hollowed out by the superior 'at-home' shopping experience offered by deliverbots and online stores. Richard Forster, a moderately successful novelist, took advantage of the glut of retail space to buy a disused supermarket with several hundred collaborators and convert it into a bookshop.

Forster's Books offers the usual range of services one expects today, including rapid custom fabricators, author subscriptions, and remote talks. However, it is the unique paid memberships offered by the bookshop that have led to its recent success. Rather than attempting to compete with Amazon Book Club's all-you-can-read rental service, Forster's has focused on providing members with higher-value physical services. These include extended borrowing rights, priority access to librarians for research assistance and personalised recommendations, early booking for author visits, book therapy advice, and access to the shop's Reading Rooms.

Given the myriad distractions and media available today, many readers find it difficult to finish books of more than a couple of hundred pages in length. The Reading Rooms are intended to help screen out those distractions.

The General Reading Room encourages readers to silence all non-urgent alerts and notifications, but otherwise does not make too many demands of its occupants.

The Quiet Reading Room not only enforces the no-alerts rule, but also restricts a wide range of activities such as games, videos, and voice messaging, by means of limited user-privilege grants. Readers may only enter and exit at 30 minute intervals.

Finally, the High Reading Room absolutely prohibits all non-reading activities — even subvocal messaging — again by user-privilege grants. Readers may only enter and exit at hourly intervals.

Readers — particularly those who are younger and have less experience of reading books — are advised to gradually acclimatise to the Rooms a few weeks at a time rather than heading straight for the High Reading Room. Those who do dive straight in can cause undue distress to themselves and to those nearby. However, a friendly and forgiving atmosphere among readers and librarians helps spread good habits.

Supposedly there exists an 'Ultra High' Reading Room encased in a Faraday cage that blocks all electromagnetic transmissions. All media are prohibited save for printed books, and its doors are only unlocked once every three hours. The Ultra High Reading Room is generally believed to be apocryphal, or at the very least, not very practical.

The Reading Rooms' popularity has led Forster's to institute a lottery for new registrations until they can expand. The high demand represents the yearning of Melbourne's inhabitants to carve out just a few hours of 'thinking space' every week — something more generally embodied by the worldwide Secular Sabbath and Slow Tech movements.

At Forster's Books, that yearning is focused directly on the dying, but not forgotten, skill of sequestered deep reading.