Welcome to the reading table
September 3, 2008 3 Comments
I had reason last fall to feel like I didn’t much belong in the Netherlands. Getting a temporary residence permit was proving surprisingly difficult. I could hear Dutch words but still couldn’t get them to come out of my mouth. I could only barely manage to weave in and out of Amsterdam traffic on my bicycle.
Yes, I was happy to be back for another sabbatical. The first one – twenty years earlier, with sons who were then two and seven – had been glorious. I had never recovered from it. But this time, accompanied only by a carefully worked out project about reading and a great many books, I craved the comfort of belonging – somewhere.
I found the Dutch reading table by accident, only to realize that it had been there all along, quietly welcoming me had I only noticed. It became my salvation and, some would say, my obsession. It brought me to Maastricht.
It was there all along
I was looking for Café Jaren’s address on its website when I caught my first reference to a “reading table.” A what? I looked for this “international reading table” as soon as I walked in the door and there it was – big and bold and welcoming. Graceful metal arches skipped down the length of the table, providing light for reading and suggesting individual places. Behind the table, on a shelf that wrapped around a pillar of posters, were the newspapers and magazines – a thoroughly international mix. I sat down. It was that simple. I had found a place I belonged.
Discovering reading tables: Café Jaren in Amsterdam
Thus did I begin to walk into any café – grand or otherwise – looking for its reading table. I became a connoisseur of the hardware that distinguishes the classic reading table, comparing the graceful wire lyres on the table at the Engels Grand Café in Rotterdam to the dark metal overhead rack at Café Dudok in the Hague to the copper hoods at Café Américain in Amsterdam. I came to appreciate the cleanly cut channel that runs down the middle of some reading tables, and the efforts of waiters who, each time they walk by, return stray newspapers and magazines to the slot. Soon I came to know the reading table’s cousin – the “common table” – still a shared table and still where a café’s newspapers and magazines are likely to be found. A huge bouquet of flowers may replace the distinctive hardware, but the etiquette remains the same. You are welcome. Sit down. Pick up one of the newspapers, or a magazine, or pull out your book – and settle in. Readers and others will come and go as you sip your coffee or tea or beer or wine. You are welcome to stay.
Hardware on the classic reading tables: Engels Grand Café in Rotterdam (graceful lyres)
Café Dudok in the Hague (dark metal overhead rack)
Café Américain in Amsterdam (copper hoods)
At first I was drawn to reading tables that had stories of their own. The elegant reading table at Café Américain, which Hemmingway is said to have given as his address in Amsterdam. The Reading Table of Old and New Media, which won the 1996 Rotterdam Design Prize and, for a time, held pride of place in the pub inside De Waag, Amsterdam’s old weigh house. Jorge Pardo’s Reading Table in the Boijmans van Beuning Museum in Rotterdam, which once welcomed visitors without even mentioning that it was part of the museum’s collection. I think Pardo would have approved. Even the most beautifully designed or attired or famous of reading tables is, at heart, just a table. It is there to be used.
In the long run it was not their stories, but the fact that they made room for mine that kept me coming back to the reading tables of Amsterdam. At Café Wildschut, I spent one of the first sunny afternoons in March reading shoulder to shoulder with an older gentleman who arrived in top coat and fedora. Although we hadn’t exchanged a word, he lowered his book and bade me a formal farewell when I left. At Café Rousseau, at the foot of the Vondelpark, I shared the table, and its enormous bouquet, with the mother of a sleeping newborn. I suspect she was savoring the very first bit of time to herself since her baby’s birth. At De Bakkerswinkel Johan Dekker and I sat down at the reading table to talk about reading tables. In 1994 he wrote a thesis on reading tables in Dutch cafés; in 2008 I wrote to him, wanting to hear more. Each of these tables – and so many others – made room for my books and for my stories and thus for me.
Looking back on the year, I remember certain of these reading tables by the books I read. Alberto Manguel’s A HISTORY OF READING at Café Spanjer & van Twist in my neighborhood in Amsterdam. B.R. Myers’ A READER’S MANIFESTO at Café Dudok in The Hague. Mark Edmundson’s WHY READ? at the Urban Espresso Café in Rotterdam. Pierre Bayard’s HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN’T READ at Bagels and Beans in The Hague. Lloyd Jones’ MISTER PIP at Café Dantzig at the Stopera in Amsterdam. And so – delightfully – it went.
They were waiting for me in Maastricht
I came to Maastricht to see “the most beautiful bookshop in the world” and the diva of all reading tables. And to talk with Sueli Brodin, whose column about the Dutch word “mee” seemed to me to have something to do with these large common tables where readers and others willingly share space. My tour of reading tables in Maastricht confirmed what I had begun to see elsewhere.
Tables for reading abound. The common tables, at which readers are welcome, were everywhere in Maastricht, with or without the huge bouquet. The classic reading tables were there too, each one fitted out for readers in a distinctive way. Massive arm lamps gave Café Zuid’s reading table something of the feel of Rotterdam harbor and, like the harbor, a lot was going on there. The Coffee Lovers reading table at the University of Maastricht Visitors Center seemed to work like a magnet, drawing a gregarious group of students and leaving the small tables nearby quite empty. The reading table in the café bar at the Lumière Cinema was in repose – and I think this was not altogether due to the fact that the café had not yet opened for the evening. The café itself somehow had the feel of an earlier, slower time. On the reading table a large candle would later be shining through a clear glass holder etched with the word “Lumière.” The reading table at the Selexyz Dominicanen juxtaposed straight-lined design and soaring arches, commerce and religion, reading and staring. I found it unsettling, which did not seem to me a bad thing. In the photographs I later saw of the reading tables at Centre Céramique, which was closed that Monday, I saw great expanses of table space, ranks of designer lights, walls of reading material, even palm trees – but only one coffee cup.
Classic reading tables in Maastricht: Café Zuid (massive arm lamps)
University of Maastricht Visitors Center (Coffee Lovers)
Café bar at the Lumière Cinema
Readers make the table. Yes, Maastricht has the diva of all reading tables. From the top level of the book stack at the Dominicanen bookstore the reading table shows up starkly in the form of a cross. On the ground, though, it’s just a table – ample and well supplied with reading material. What it needs – what all reading tables need – are readers who come to feel they belong at that particular table. An uncommonly peaceful hour of reading might be enough do it, or an unforgettable book, or a conversation that carried the ideas from a book to unexpected places. I suspect that it was associations like these that led one person to send me to the common table at the Grand café Au Mouton Blanc, while another told me to try the table at Café De Perroen. I, in turn, ended up feeling at home at the common table at De Bobbel. When I arrived there at the end of the day I was tired and elated, ready to settle down with a glass of wine and enjoy Daniel Pennac’s BETTER THAN LIFE – about the joy of reading. Comfortable there, I would send others there.
“Common tables” in Maastricht: De Bobbel, Grand Café Au Mouton Blanc, Café De Perroen
Reading tables change. I learned this lesson each time I returned to the café at the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam (FOAM). A very large rectangular table filled the café’s small reading room on my first visit, insisting on careful attention to the full wall of high quality art magazines. Two small square tables for two graced the space on my second visit, discreetly inviting subdued conversation, whether or not related to art. A low, round table had taken over the space by my third visit, encouraging readers to relax in the easy chairs that surrounded it and enjoy the magazines. I learned this lesson again when I returned to photograph the first reading tables I had found in the fall. At Café du Monde the reading table no longer presided, under massive reading lights, over the side of the café it had shared with the bar. I found it on the other side of the room instead, lined up with several smaller tables. At Café Rousseau the reading table had moved forward to the front window while the sofa and easy chairs had moved back to cluster around the bookcase. When I come back to Maastricht I expect to find that some of the tables have moved and that others have changed in other ways. But for their flexibility I might not find them at all.
Table travel works. I first tried traveling from reading table to reading table in the company of friends who knew their way around The Hague. Among many other things, we found a children’s reading table at Café Dudok that was a perfect copy of the adults’ reading table. I managed the day of table travel in Maastricht with nothing more than a map, a short list of possibilities, and beautiful weather. Groningen is next, where I’ll have the help of an artist whose paintings of café interiors often feature reading tables. Each of these trips brings me back to Amsterdam Central Station, where the Grand Café ‘1e Klas’ at track 2b occupies what was once the first class waiting room. The architecture is glorious and there sits a classic reading table just waiting for me. They are waiting for you as well.
Table travel: children’s reading table at Café Dudok, The Hague
Adults’ reading table at Café Dudok, The Hague
Grand Café ’1e Klas’ at track 2b in Amsterdam
Sightings and stories
My friends now divide between those who have heard more than enough about reading tables and those who continue to listen to my tales and to send me sightings and stories. Two American friends who visited in the spring told me they were missing Amsterdam and missing reading tables. When they recently saw a very large table in a restaurant in their home town, both had the same initial reaction – “finally, a reading table.” They headed toward it, but a small sign on the table waved them away – “For parties of five or more.” Alas.
If you have sightings, favorites, or stories about reading tables, in The Netherlands or elsewhere, I hope you will send them to me at email@example.com.
By Janet Lindgren
Janet Lindgren, who is on sabbatical from the State University of New York at Buffalo, is not going to find it easy to leave Dutch reading tables behind.
* Source: DutchNews.nl, 14-01-2008, “according to journalist Sean Dodson on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian.”