Silence Speaks Volumes

There’s an old joke about a woman who walks into a library and asks the librarian, “Can I have a burger and fries?” The librarian looks at her and replies, “I’m sorry, this is a library.” The woman then whispers, “Can I have a burger and fries?”

Through my study of the 96th Street branch of the New York Public Library, I consider themes relating to silence from a linguistic perspective. Silence is multi-faceted, and with each variation comes different connotations.

The wooden doors at the entrance of the 96th Street Library stand at twice my height. Inside, four steps await, leading to a hallway separated from the main floor by wood barriers with frosted glass. Welcome to the 96th Street Library. A grand staircase stands before me, leading up, but I prefer this space, the first floor. Turn left. There are nine bookshelves inside the wall and four tables. Here are the novels, the magazines, the comic books, DVDs, and the TV that plays movies at 2:00 PM on Tuesdays.

Since childhood, a notion has been ingrained in my head: the library is a place to whisper, to be silent. After a cursory observation, it becomes obvious that silence is not singular. On the first floor, it is silence with allowances. Nobody’s yelling, but at the same time, nobody’s uncomfortable in the space. There is a poster of rules on the wall that tells people to be quiet, but it almost seems like a waste of space and trees. 

Papers rustle, and every so often, an almost piercing beep comes from the librarian’s desk. Somebody’s checking out. A young girl is being tutored at a nearby table, being asked questions at a volume that can be heard from a few yards away, yet still feels comfortable. The girl did not do so well on her practice test in school, but her tutor is there to help.

Someone mentions that the librarians on the children’s floor are nice about making noise. Even more casual than the main floor, this area is a space where silence is not enforced. People are quiet enough, but in the way one is quiet when being polite, not because one is asked.

The reference floor, one flight above, is not as lenient. A single unnecessary noise could bring about death stares. Like a tennis match or a Broadway play, silence from the crowd is essential, and the burden of remaining noiseless feels stifling.

My roommate, Zach, also acknowledges the variations in silences. He notes the disruptive nature of silence, despite the calm and concentration it is meant to foster.

The main difference is that like one of those deafening or dead silences is that most people actually agree that deafening is almost uncomfortable, that is…when there’s rustling, you’re just being yourself, you know. If you turn a piece of paper, it doesn’t matter. You’re just doing your own thing, everybody’s doing their thing. But when it’s a type of environment that’s you know, eerily silent, you turn a paper, you’re like ‘okay how can I turn this paper as silently as possible?’ If you, literally like shift your seat, it’ll be like you just set off a bomb, like everyone heard the small squeak of your chair, or the small things, it’s this uncomfortable thing that you’re trying to sit still in this unnatural way which is, frankly, not conducive to studying, which is a problem when you’re trying to study.
— Zach

As a result, Zach chooses to eschew the library in favor of study in the Baruch Honors Lounge, where the chatter makes him feel more relaxed and more conducive to concentration. Zach prefers not to sit in total silence. Instead, he turns on white noise when he’s home, using artificial sound generators to fill the uncomfortable space.

There’s a misconception when it comes to silence, that it is not as nuanced or varied compared to its counterpart, speech, that it is just a singular state.  The truth of the matter is that silence is a form of language unto itself. However, based on Derridean deconstructionism (Spikes, 1992), it is clear that without the alternative of silence, speech loses its significance. In his exposition on the concept of place names, Keith Basso discusses people using place names. “Rarely do they have reason to consider that the coherence it displays is an intricate product of their own collective manufacture,” he writes (Basso, 1996). People visit the library every day and interact with each silence in its context, but they seldom consider the profundity of the absence of speech in this place –the difference between stifling and deafening, between comfortable and relaxed. This is not something that regularly occurs in the thoughts of library patrons, but as Basso notes in his exposition, the intricacies are there. In his description of an overheard exchange, Basso bookends the conversation with silence. 

The imagery that Basso evokes from the silences creates an awkwardness of sorts, coupled with a decisiveness of the words spoken between the two moments of quiet. When reading Basso’s work, each of the silences he depicts feels different from the other, even with no direct language to indicate that it is. Even written silence has implicit differentiation.

Nothing stirs except for Clifford, the Machuses’ ancient yellow dog, who shifts his position in the dust, groans fitfully, and snaps at a fly. Silence…Only Clifford, who has launched a feverish attack on an itch below his ear, seems unaffected by what has been said. Silence once again.
— (Basso, 1996).

Basso speaks of the Western Apache, using place names to identify specific lessons and images out of shared storytelling. The place name “Line of White Rocks Extends Up and Out” (Basso, 1996) commemorates the tale of a girl who did not listen to her grandmother’s warning and was bitten by a snake as a result. Everyone still learns the key lesson that warns against impulsivity, despite having a different memory of the story. 

While people may have varying degrees of culturally conditioned understandings of how to act in the library, there is still a basic decorum followed by everyone. On the main floor, talking is allowed in moderation. On the children’s floor, there is even more leniency. On the reference floor, all patrons must be silent. What some may see as an absence of speech, Derrida would interpret as the presence of silence. The different permutations of silence found on each distinct floor exemplify the intricacies in the language of non-language.

By Benjamin Wallin

Benjamin Wallin is an English and Journalism major with a minor in Film Studies. This piece was originally written for ANT 1001: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, taught by Professor Vaiva Aglinskas. He believes in the magic of a library, in those gentle moments where one can only hear pages turning and hushed voices.

Cover Art by Goldie Gross

Images Source

Works Cited

Basso, Keith H. “Speaking With Place Names.” Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1996. N. pag. Print.

Spikes, Michael P. “PRESENT ABSENCE VERSUS ABSENT PRESENCE: Kripke Contra Derrida.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 75.2/3 (1992): 333-55. JSTOR. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.