I didn’t go to Kenyon College, nor did I graduate in the year 2005, so when David Foster Wallace delivered his now famous “This is Water” address, in which a wise old fish explained to a young fish that he was in fact swimming in a substance and that substance was water, I missed it. I wish I had had that koan delivered a decade or so earlier, but a year ago the realization washed over me. Better late than never.
As a freelance writer, one successful enough to live in New York but not to do so comfortably or spaciously, I am in constant search for a place to write, what Virginia Woolf called a room of one’s own. (The gig economy has made Woolfians of us all.) Since I’m 37 and have been making a living writing for the past 15 years or so, I started writing long before WeWork, Spacious, and other coworking businesses that cater to the gig economy existed. For most of my career, therefore, I silverfished from third-wave coffee shop to third-wave coffee shop, carrying my MacBook like a slim silver bible—a door-to-door word salesman, becoming ever more overcaffeinated as the day wore on. Sometimes I felt like a macchiato hobo, a jittery jotter, a vibrating scribbler desperately hunting for wifi and an open outlet.
As I look back over those years, I tally up the tens of thousands of dollars spent on macchiatos and—because guilt is a force that gives me meaning—assorted pastries bought to justify my continued presence at whatever coffee shop I called my office that day.
Then last year, my friend—a tall, flame-headed musician named Kyle who, despite never having held a full-time job, has saved a great deal of money—said this: “Joshua, there are two types of people: library people and coffee shop people.” And just like that, in an instant, I knew what my water was. It was a coffee shop. But unlike the fish, I was drowning. I had to get out.
This is not a screed against the café. But let’s not kid ourselves either. We are not Sartre, this is not Paris, and Think Coffee is not Cafe de Flore.
This is not a screed against the café. Cafés are, have been, and can be little embassies of human interaction in a world run on faceless AI and algorithms. Think of all the scenes in movies, literature, poems, songs, anecdotes, limericks, and love stories that have taken place in a coffee shop. But let’s not kid ourselves either. We are not Sartre, this is not Paris, and Think Coffee is not Cafe de Flore. The incandescent vitality of a coffeehouse is found in the interactions between its habitués. That’s the reason, per Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, the Enlightenment was born in them. (Also, because folks stopped drinking as much beer in the morning.) Chitter, chatter, et voilà!: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. But the modern coffee shop is not that. The only enlightenment is thanks to the sickly pale illumination from open laptops. No one talks. No one listens. No one meets cute. All they do is work. Or scroll through Twitter. These are not centers for living in the present but rather temples to working remotely, albeit with the gloss of leisure.
So one day, shortly after Kyle clued me in to his Manichaean view of the world, I headed to midtown, up a flight of marble stairs, past a pair of carved lions, and into the main branch of the New York Public Library.
Having seen the library only on television and in movies, I was unprepared for its grandeur. No coffee shop can compare to the experience of walking into Room 315, the Rose Main Reading Room. So high the ceilings and impressive the paints, so vast and prettily repetitive the oak desks, so regularly spaced the bronze lamps atop them, even walking into the room one feels an upswell of inspiration. This isn’t a Starbucks: It’s a cathedral.
This isn’t a Starbucks: It’s a cathedral.
The Rose Main Reading Room is so quiet, so devoid of the fripperies of Frappuccino sellers. There is no Mumford & Sons, no overheard snippets of networking so self-aggrandizing you struggle to remain impassive. There are no compensatory calories, bought as absolution for just being there. All there is is work and workers doing it.
As a lad, I found libraries synonymous with silence and the control of a shushing librarian; these days, that silence is freeing. Here is a glorious public space, filled with the public, paid for by the public, the golden civic jewel of an enlightened society. And there are plenty of outlets for everyone.
Coffee shops are small pockets of self-selected society. A library, on the other hand, is a core sample. Libraries are public institutions. They serve as havens for all sorts of sober-minded people who either can’t afford, or choose not to spend, $3.75 on a tiny, tiny cup of espresso and milk. In this room, I find fellowship with those like and unlike me. Not only with the writers who came before me—from Robert Caro, who wrote The Power Broker here, to Jennifer Egan, Betty Friedan, and E.L. Doctorow, who composed Ragtime a few chairs down—but with my fellow citizens (and noncitizens), who scoot back and forth on our heavy chairs and lean over the oak desks where there are not only laptops before us, but books (actual books!) spread out like wings. Older, younger, some with cashmere shawls and others with only the clothes on their backs, all colors. If silence weren’t a key selling point of the library, these halls would echo with a thousand languages. But one thing binds us. In a world where there are two types of people, those of the library and those of the coffee shop, we know who we are. We, here, we’re the library kind. And we say: Come on in; the water’s fine.
Joshua David Stein (joshuadavidstein.com) is an author, journalist, and musician. He is currently the editor at large at Fatherly and host of The Fatherly Podcast. He is also the author of the children’s books Can I Eat That?, What’s Cooking?, and Brick: Who Found Herself in Architecture, and the coauthor of Where Chefs Eat and the upcoming memoir Notes From a Young Black Chef with Kwame Onwuachi. He performs children’s books set to music with his band, the Band Books, and lives in Kensington, Brooklyn, with his family. He previously wrote about the poetry of the New York subway for WSWD.