Seattle’s The Stranger hosts a weekly Zoom meeting for lonely readers
It’s 9 p.m. on the East Coast, 6 p.m. on the West. A young woman reads attentively to her toddler, holding up number signs to check for comprehension. Couples and families clink dishes and generously pour adult beverages. An older lady is plugged into her oxygen as she dozes off in bed, listening to piano tunes. They’re images from life in lockdown, all lined up in a row, like windows into a picturesque apartment building in New York City or Paris. The actual setting is far less idyllic, if no less romantic: it’s a Zoom meeting of over 130 strangers, all brought together over their love of books and live music.
Since April 15, Seattle’s alternative biweekly newspaper The Stranger has brought these strangers together for their weekly online Silent Reading Parties. It’s something they’ve actually been mastering since 2009, holding in-person parties at Seattle’s Sorrento Hotel on the first Wednesday of the month, full of snacks, cocktails and the city’s nerdiest, silent partygoers. The current iteration modernizes that formula: a weekly Zoom call, set to the sweet piano music of composer Paul Matthew Moore. The Stranger offers tickets to the weekly event on a sliding scale, helping to keep the lights on during COVID-19.
“I think a lot of us mean to set aside more time to read, and then we never get around to it. Netflix is so distracting. The internet is so distracting. And there’s no such thing as a commercial for books—it just doesn’t happen. So there are no messages in the world that encourage adults to tune out all distractions and have a private experience with a book. I want this party to be a force in the world that does that,” says Christopher Frizzelle, a longtime writer and editor at The Stranger and the party’s host. “Somehow, the peer pressure of knowing that other people are also turning off the internet, turning off Netflix, to get some reading done, makes it easier to get some reading done! It’s like you’re in a club or something. A group. An underground.”
At the first Silent Reading party I attended, I was reading Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, a gorgeous, haunting, experimental memoir of the author’s experience in an abusive lesbian relationship. My state is still quarantining, and my partner is an essential worker who works the late shift, so I spend a lot of after-dark by myself. And I’d been finding it hard to read Machado’s book alone and at night, because so much of her story reminded me of my own painful experience. I normally had to stop every few pages, take breaks, re-read certain affirming bits aloud, cry, get some more ice cream. But during the reading party, I knocked out 100 pages.
Another Silent Reading party I attended on May 20 was a special one, held in honor of director Lynn Shelton, who died suddenly on May 16. A beloved writer and director, Shelton was raised in Seattle and spent much of her life there, and many in the city’s creative community especially mourn her death. Moore played a special selection of Shelton’s favorite tunes, including some Neil Young, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” I saw Frizzelle tear up more than once — another little peek into someone else’s private moment.
“[T]here is something fascinating about these mini dioramas into everyone’s lives! The party at the Sorrento was fun and all, but those are all people showing up to a pre-existing room, sitting on furniture that someone else chose, ordering off a menu that someone else devised,” says Frizzelle. “There’s something more intimate about seeing into people’s homes, seeing where they sit and read when they’re by themselves, and seeing what snacks they choose to make for themselves. It is endlessly fascinating in a way that seeing someone across the room of a hotel lobby doesn’t quite match.”
My experience was as endlessly fascinating as Frizzelle describes. At the first party I attended, I clocked 139 people on the Zoom video call. There were at least two other Katies and another Smith. Many people changed their zoom names to their locations–Seattle, Kentucky, Los Angeles, Virginia and New York state–and tended to their loved ones and pets, got up to get dinner, checked their phones, self-consciously fixed their hair in the zoom camera. Over 100 people stayed online up until the very end. And Frizzelle and Moore’s soothing piano tunes held that space. It felt magical. I can’t wait until tonight.