January 16, 2013 4:00 pm

Sound of silence is yet another sales tool

Refuges of tranquillity are under siege as peace and quiet becomes an increasingly rare commodity

In Philip Roth’s early novella Goodbye, Columbus, a young black boy spends his summer on the floor of the Newark public library, lost in a book of Gauguin reproductions.

Neil Klugman, the story’s librarian protagonist, chats to the reader about Gauguin’s peaceful Tahiti, where no one ever yells. Klugman then craftily prevents another library user from borrowing the book.

Fretting that he can no longer put off the art enthusiast, he tries to persuade the boy to take the book home himself. The boy refuses. The whole point of the library, the book and Tahiti is that they are a refuge from the world outside.

With many libraries under threat of closure, there was a push by UK writers last year to preserve public reading rooms’ traditional role as quiet learning places for everyone. There still are cities, even in the UK, that are investing in libraries, but their roles are changing. Public Libraries News reported that a panel discussion saw the library of the future as “a space for businesses and entrepreneurs, providing meeting space, patent clinics, inventor clinics”.

A New Zealand report described libraries as “places where people from all walks of life gather to read, browse, watch, examine, research, share ideas, teach, learn, engage and debate”. Books are now available on tablets and phones. Libraries have to adapt. But it doesn’t sound as if they are going to be quiet.

These thoughts came to me as I walked through Selfridges’ London store last week, a luxury emporium far removed from the traditional public library’s demotic openness.

I was searching for Selfridges’ new Silence Room, a quest that made me realise how noisy the store was. Every floor, sometimes every department, was playing its own music. In one, I had to dodge electronic toys clattering around under the remote control of a store employee.

You have to take off your shoes and deposit your phone in a locker before entering the Silence Room, a dimly lit space fringed with padded benches and walls. It is quiet, although you can still hear the buzz of the city outside. The Silence Room will provide overwhelmed shoppers with a place to relax. It is part of a marketing campaign, together with various well-known brands including Levi’s, called No Noise.

Alannah Weston, Selfridges’ creative director, tells me the idea isn’t new. The store had a quiet room when it opened in 1909. Noise was different then: there was the clatter of horses, early cars, shouting in the streets. Now, she says, we have text messages, aircraft, the buzz of dimmer switches.

We probably enjoy more quiet than our predecessors did, but they had periods of enforced peace. The shops weren’t open on Sundays.

There are still quiet places amid the hubbub, but I don’t think they will last. One, oddly, is the London Underground. When it celebrated its 150th birthday last week, I tweeted that I had, by my rough calculation, spent a full seven months travelling on it. “Seven months you’ll never get back,” responded a former colleague who has left London. I told him I didn’t begrudge the time: almost every moment, whether sitting or standing, had been spent reading. However crowded, the Tube is quiet. That no one talks is sometimes regarded as a sign of the capital’s coldness. I think it is part of London’s genius – the respect for small spaces among the crowds.

But it will change. Not only do people not speak to each other. They cannot speak to anyone else. But you can already get wireless internet on part of the Tube, although from next month you will have to pay for it. Mobile phones will eventually come to the Tube’s deep tunnels.

The same will happen on aircraft. Economy class may be cramped, but there is that delicious realisation as the aircraft pushes back: no one can reach me now. For how long? Regulators are examining the use of mobile devices on flights. They say they are not considering allowing people to chat on their phones, but it will happen one day because there is money to be made from it.

Where will we be able to find some peace – from ringing phones, other people’s conversation, background music, and our own compulsive need to check texts and emails? Trains have quiet carriages and some of us are lucky enough to live in suburban houses away from the city centre racket. Those who live crunched up against their neighbours and who never go to Selfridges (whose quiet room is, in any case, scheduled to close at the end of February) will have no escape.

michael.skapinker@ft.com

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