Do you need a quiet place to read?

Do you need a quiet place to read?

Hats off to Laura Miller at Salon for this post:

Bring back shushing librarians

That’s not because I particularly endorse the admonition in the headline. It’s for catching something which hadn’t stood out to me in the recent

Pew survey on libraries in the digital age

Miller observes, that, in what people value about public libraries

“”Quiet study spaces for adults and children” comes in fourth, and here is where the results go rogue. The percentage of people who consider quiet spaces to be a very important element in any public library is 76,Β only one percentage point lessΒ than the value given to computer and Internet access. A relatively silent place to read is almost exactly as valuable to these people as the Internet!”

That one fascinates me, because it’s the opposite of how I read.

I prefer to be in a noisy environment. I want to read with the TV on in the background, or in a crowded and noisy restaurant.

Now, I know that’s not how most people feel, and the Pew survey demonstrates that to some extent. I say to “some extent” because the question isn’t just about reading, but about study, which could be different.

It’s more important for me to have a data rich environment when I am studying than when I am reading for pleasure (although studying is a pleasure for me…but I digress). πŸ˜‰

I remember when our kid (now an adult) was first starting to do serious studying for school. My Significant Other said (and I’m paraphrasing): “Should we allow music during the studying?” I said, “How can the kid study without music?”

That concept actually baffled me. I couldn’t imagine studying for school while in the low-tech equivalent of an isolation booth.

I want something else happening…so I don’t get bored with the studying. The studying doesn’t take up my full attention, typically. I’m understanding and remembering it all with only part of my mind. If there isn’t already something going on in the environment, I’ll look for something…and that’s a distraction.

I was explaining this to a class once (of highly educated adults), and somebody said to me, “Is that like attention deficit?” I replied, “No, it’s more like attention surplus.” πŸ™‚ I have “more attention” available than the work can occupy. It’s not that I can’t keep paying attention to the work…it’s that I want to pay attention to that and to something else.

I want to put up a sign that says, “People are trying to work…please make some noise.” πŸ˜‰

Now, I’ve heard from people over and over again about how humans can’t really multitask. While I won’t debate the mechanics of what is happening (are successful multitaskers really just very good at switching back and forth rapidly and repeatedly), I’ve found that about fifteen percent of people are good at having two things happening at once.

With that group, if you stop them from being on the internet while you are teaching, they aren’t going to learn it.

The problem arises because a lot more than fifteen percent of people think they are in that group, when they really aren’t. πŸ™‚

Not too long ago, they asked us not to use our computers while we were in a recurring team meeting…that lasts basically a whole day. It was nice that they asked if anybody had a problem with that, and I explained that I did. There would be little point in my being in the meeting if I couldn’t be doing something else at the same time, since I wouldn’t absorb any of it. I was the only person to say that, by the way. Oh, and I am perhaps the most participatory person in the meeting in those situations (one of the top three, I’d say), while I’m checking my e-mail. πŸ™‚

The solution in that case was for me to take the minutes (and fortunately, I’m good at that). That gives me something else to do, and that certainly helps.

I am not saying that this is superior. I think it’s connected in some ways to my having quite a lengthy process to get to sleep, and to waking up slowly. I am very envious of my Significant Other’s ability to just announce a twenty minute nap, and then be up, active, and refreshed twenty-two minutes later! It takes me that long just to get to sleep (although I now have the process down so it isn’t difficult, it’s still a complicated procedure).

It’s just different.

So, I was curious about you.

I realize some of you would pick all three of these answers: try to do the one that’s true the most often:

I’m also puzzled when people seem to think that having multiple things happening around you at once is a modern development. I’ve never understood that. If you were painstakingly making a stone knife in the Paleolithic Age and weren’t constantly aware of rustles in the tall grass, and movement behind the rocks, you’d never get a chance to use your fancy high-tech artificial fang. πŸ˜‰

I think we’re likely to have evolved to work on one task while paying attention to what is happening around us.

This “Cone of Silence” idea for studying? That just seems very artificial.

That people rate it nearly as highly as having internet access while in a library is surprising to me. Oh, it’s cool when I’m in a library and it’s all quiet…I think in part because that makes it a different environment than what I normally encounter. I suppose a laser light show might have a similar sense of “altered reality” for me. πŸ˜‰

For those of you who like the quiet (and again, my guess is that’s the vast majority of people), have you ever gone to the library just to have that around you? Do you ever go in, find a quiet spot, lean back, lace your fingers behind your neck, close your eyes, and just soak it all in? I’m sure people must.

Maybe we should have “quiet booths” on the street, where you could just go in there and shut everything else out. Of course, those would inevitably be used for activities some would consider unsavory.

Say, I do remember that in The Jungle, a sort of giant Habitrail for kids, they did have a quiet room for parents! You’d be there for a birthday party, and two hundred kids were yelling and screaming and getting stuck on a platform because they were afraid to go down a tunnel, and you could just go somewhere else and let the employees deal with it. πŸ˜‰ I do think people read in there…when we were going, we didn’t carry the internet with us.

What do you think? How important is quiet to you when you read? Is it natural to prefer focus and exclusion when studying? Is it a reason why you go to the library? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

Oh, and I do recommend the post I linked at the start of this article…just read it quietly. πŸ˜‰

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in theΒ I Love My Kindle blog.

22 Responses to “Do you need a quiet place to read?”

  1. Zebras Says:


    I love your invention “attention surplus!” I was officially diagnosed with ADD, but not until I was 30. Never even had heard the term before that, read about it in a magazine, and was actually happy to find out there was an explanation for why I was so different. My brain is wired differently and in certain circumstances too much going on will frazzle me and shut me down, but a certain controlled chaos works very well for me.

    I find that putting music on when I’m doing a task that only occupies part of my attention helps dramatically in keeping my focus on task, which seems counterintuitive. I love the idea that I have surplus to to work with rather than some kind of deficit.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!

      Glad you liked the term!

      I don’t get frazzled with a lot happening, and I do love chaos. πŸ˜‰ I also like things to be organized, but it really gets me excited in a good way to find out that what I was expecting to do has been completely changed with no notice. That’s always going to have been a good day. I work closely with someone who is really the opposite of that, and we initially had real personal clashes. I would say, though, that we are now one of the best teams at what we do…because we complement each other, and recognize the value of the other person’s approach.

      The music thing makes sense to me, and does fit me exactly. Let’s say the task takes, oh, 75 percent of your attention. You then have that 25% which is looking for something to do. With the music on, that 25% is occupied, and the 75% can keep working on the primary task. Without the music, that 25% keeps looking…and may start to draw on the 75% to enhance the search. That’s my feeling on it, anyway.

      • Zebras Says:


        That’s a perfect analogy! I’ve become more aware of it lately in myself and use music as a tool now to keep my focus at work properly directed.

        You are still the multi-tasker extraordinaire though! I do find that being wired so differently often makes me see problems differently, and have often found solutions that others haven’t though of in the work place.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Zebras!

        I find that having people with several different approaches is often useful, provided that those approaches can be taken into account and evaluated properly. For a fictional example, you can look at Kirk/Spock/McCoy…and for that matter, several other people on the Enterprise. While it might have often seemed like Captain Kirk did what Captain Kirk wanted πŸ˜‰ it was often after listening to the sometimes diametrically opposed advice of Spock and McCoy.

  2. Bailey Says:

    Now, it seems that I’m almost the exact opposite. I can focus on one task and do it well, focus on two jobs and do an adverage to poor job, and any more is asking for trouble.

    If anything is going on in the room, I have trouble paying attention to what I’m doing. (Example, as I write this, my mom is in the next room watching TV. I had to close the door in order to write this, and as I can still hear it with the door closed, I am still having trouble organizing my thoughts.) So to me, silence is very important, especially if I’m doing something I don’t want to be doing, or if the thing in the room is something I’d rather not be paying attention to (Like the TV. I have issues with the TV.)
    I’ve gone to the library many times to do work, in one of their little offices. I’ve found myself to be much more productive there with no distractions. Even music or sewing can prove too much noise for me- I either block it out or stop paying attention to what I’m doing. And if I’m listening to an audiobook while doing something else, it has to be either one I’ve practically memorized or one I’m willing to rewind and listen to again.

    Thanks for posting this! It was incredibly interesting!

    (In the middle of this post, I took the dog outside. It’s quiet out here and I’m finding it much easier to answer coherently πŸ™‚
    So my mini-experiment proves that I am definitely /not/ in the 15% that can multi-task.

    I’ve also discovered its cold. But that was a given.)

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Bailey!

      I appreciate you presenting the other perspective!

      I’m curious: are you then not able to listen to an audiobook when driving? I may have text-to-speech going, have the GPS in my phone be speaking directions as needed (I’m so glad they aren’t both the same voice, which used to be the case for me), and be singing an unrelated song. πŸ™‚ With all that, I think I can still say that I am a more attentive driver than many. I also leave an appropriate “bubble” between me and the car in front…I do shoot for a car length for every ten miles an hour. I think that does require paying more attention, since cars are more likely to jump into that gap than if you were less than a car length behind.

      • Bailey Says:

        I have no idea, since I can’t drive yet. πŸ™‚
        I’m legally old enough to get a permit, but I don’t have a job and am homeschooled, so there is no need yet. I probably could pay attention when driving though, since I like to listen to books when out on walks and can pay attention to what’s around me perfectly fine. It’s like I’m on auto-pilot though, and I don’t really notice any details.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Bailey!

        For people who live in cities with good public transit, many of them don’t learn to drive until later (if at all). One of our best friends, living in San Francisco, didn’t learn to drive until becoming a parent (when that does give you more flexibility).

  3. cardinalrobbins Says:

    I like your term “attention surplus,” too — it sums things up nicely. I’ve always had to have music on for studying, housework, writing, almost everything. If it’s not on a device, it’s playing in my head. πŸ™‚ I’m not sure if that’s because I was raised in a music-rich environment by my biological mother, or because the TV was always on due to my biological father.

    Before the internet, I’d have the TV on, a book on my lap to read during commercials, and be working on a crochet project or tapping away at a writing project on my old Litton-Royal. Now, I’m usually working on a novel or a script with the TV on in the background, while I have headphones on with my Spotify music list playing.

    Granted, usually during the daylight hours I have the TV off, but when there are more people in the house at night, I seem to crave a higher noise/activity level as I’m working. I can’t explain it. I’m glad I don’t have to. I’ve always wondered if part of the reason is because I’m ambidextrous, but that doesn’t seem to be as much of a factor, since my adoptive sister and her husband (a computer programmer) tend to also need music and books nearby while they’re doing things on the computer.

    Bufo, maybe we’re all able to use a greater percentage of our brain these days, since we have more to stimulate various areas of it? Or maybe all of that stimuli is hitting our reward center and making us feel better? I don’t have the answers, but I’m sure some scientist will eventually write a grant and get millions to study it soon. πŸ˜‰

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, cardinalrobbins!

      I’m ambidextrous, too! It could be that ambidexters are more likely to prefer data rich environments, even if there are others that prefer it, too. I could see that: I see many people with a dominant hand only paying attention to that hand, looking at what it is doing, while I tend to be aware of both hands. That could, I think, be connected.

      I thought I’d told this story here, but maybe I haven’t. I hadn’t been in my relationship with my Significant Other for all that long. My SO came into the room and started explaining something to me. I was watching TV and reading a book. My SO said, nicely, “I need you to pay attention to me because this is important.” I handed my SO the book and said, “This is what the last three paragraphs say verbatim. This is the last five minutes of dialogue in the TV show. And this is every word you’ve said since you walked into the room.” I was able to do all of those accurately (I don’t think I still could, though). My SO was convinced, but I also learned that it was important to stop doing the other things so it was obvious. When my SO comes in now, I habitually pause the TV show…that makes my SO happier, and it’s fine with me. πŸ™‚

      Those grants aren’t all there for scientists like they used to be, by the way.

      Oh, I was at a party once, taking part in several conversations simultaneously. Another partygoer, whoo was a psychologist, was doing a study on multitasking and wanted me to participate, but that just never worked out.

      • liz Says:

        I’m a multitasker in a similar way – I prefer to always have some background noise, whatever I’m doing, or I quickly lose focus on what I should be doing; if the task involves listening, I need a visual distraction. I frequently got into trouble in school for doing things (doodling, crafts, etc) when I should have been merely taking notes. A few years ago, I got into trouble with my then-boss because I played Solitaire on my Palm Pilot during our extremely boring weekly team meetings; she saw my game playing as rudeness, but I was able to pay much better attention to the meeting that way. Of course, when she confronted me, I immediately stopped playing, but I lost my ability to pay good attention.

        I have noticed recently that I don’t give full attention to two similar tasks simultaneously (ie not full multitasking), but I still have difficulty doing a single task well without a complimentary sensory stimulus. So I need to activate a couple of sections of my brain to be more effective.

        By the way, I am also ambidextrous and have difficulty going to sleep immediately…

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, liz!

        Yes, people sometimes just don’t get other people’s work patterns. They see something which would be a problem for them to be doing, and therefore think it is a problem for someone else to be doing. I used to teach a day long class called Advanced Interpersonal Communications. I’ve always said that those “soft skills” classes can usually be boiled down to one sentence (although the rest of the exploration of the concept is worthwhile), and in that case it was: “People are different…and that’s okay.” πŸ™‚

        Interesting about you also being an ambidexter and not having that “instant off” ability! I may need to do some polling of the readers…

  4. Rick Askenase Says:

    I much prefer to read in a quiet environment- usually in my comfortable leather chair or corner of a couch. I can have music on- but either instrumental/orchestral or opera (can’t understand the words so not distracting).

    Strangely enough I will often read while watching a football game (with the sound pretty low) as I can mentally time when the next play will start and look up. )Same with baseball when a pitch is to be thrown.) But not during the Superbowl.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Rick!

      I can understand that ability to engage when it is more important. No question, there are some times I know to look at the TV, rather than at my computer.

  5. oldiesuz Says:

    Like the others above, “attention surplus” is the best way I have ever heard to describe how I have felt for years! Brilliant!

  6. Joe Bowers Says:

    I almost always have music on unless I’m watching a movie or, rarely, a TV show. So, when I read I usually have tunes playing, hence I am not into the audio books or Whispersync (sp?) Back in late grade and high school, I usually studied with music playing. In fact, in High school, I had one of those old “suitcase” stereos with the detachable speakers and would sit at my desk between the speakers. My dad was initially critical of the situation, but my grades were very good, so he accepted it. I always felt like the music helped me in my studying and reading, and, like I say, the results were pretty good! Another interesting topic to consider, Bufo, thanks. (Add me to the list approving the term “attention surplus.”)

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Joe!

      I’m glad you liked the term! I’ve used it before, but not, I think, in this blog. It’s nice when something resonates with people like that, because it makes me feel like I’m serving their needs in some way.

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