I came into the Free Library's Central Branch only 45 minutes after putting down my Nook, on which I'd been reading a detective short story. After a full year owning an electronic reading tablet, I'm still getting used to it.
I'm enthralled by its capacity and portability and the versatility of its digital chip, yet suspicious of a reading platform that doesn't have the feel of a book and its pages and the printed – really printed – word.
I didn't realize how this was about to come to a head at a Fringe festival show, "The Quiet Volume," in which the audience members are both the spectators and performers. "The Quiet Volume" is the creation of two British theater artists, Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells, who specialize in the sort of outré work that make a Fringe festival what it is.
In this intellectual exercise about books – traditional books fashioned from paper, ink, binding and covers – Hampton and Etchells get you to think about the way words appear on a page, the letters that form them, the voices in your head when you read them and, particularly, the notion of reading them in a special place where an unnatural silence is mandated.
That would be the library, where every 15 minutes during "The Quiet Volume" performance hours, two people at a time are given headphones and iPods and shepherded into a reading room on the second floor. Most times these people have bought tickets together but sometimes they're paired. I was paired with Stephen Segal, the editor of Philadelphia Weekly; neither of us knew each other, but by the time the hour was over, we had a common link through our experiences in the show. Your partner in "The Quiet Volume" becomes a fellow traveler in literacy.
"The Quiet Volume" begins with observation – just listening. On the recording that plays in your headset, a whisperer asks you to notice how the silence around you may be noisy, indeed – chairs creaking or rumbling a few inches across the floor, librarians speaking to needy visitors, the sound of your own breath. The show then moves into print and its particular look on a page, then to the tactility of a book (to some of us, like comfort food for the sense of touch), and finally to the way content is perceived on a page. Here, you and your partner are given different directions to show one another different things in the same book.
The idea, I think, is to share a sort of mind space. I can't say that it works. I also can't tell you how the different parts of "The Quiet Volume" jell into a cohesive piece – when we finish thinking about silence, for instance, we move into the way appears and the whiteness of a page, and there's no grout between these two themes to hold them together. Maybe there doesn't need to be. But it struck me, after the hour ended, that I'd just gone through a pleasant and relaxing experience about the obvious. If I learned anything, it's how much I still like the process of absorbing ideas on pages I can turn and in a book I can close at the end with a sense of finality.
"The Quiet Volume" runs through Sept. 22 at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library on the Parkway, 1901 Vine St. . For information on all FringeArts shows in the festival, including dates, times and venues, visit www.fringearts.com