Every aspect of the Rose Main Reading Room, in the New York Public Library’s main branch, at Forty-second and Fifth, seems designed to encourage long visits and to foster serious accomplishment. Two marble candelabras flank the entrance to the room, which measures the length of two city blocks. 
The forty-two long, wide oak tables ensure you’ll never brush elbows with fellow patrons—or read over their shoulders. In addition to the light from chandeliers and sunlight slanting through cathedral windows, intimate bronze-shaded lamps spill warm puddles of (soon-to-be-forgotten incandescent) light over the writing surface. A trash can awaits at the end of each row, dictionaries on pedestals (with individual reading lamps!) await at the other, and white stripes run along both sides of the center aisle, like the emergency lighting on an airplane, keeping your mind and body from straying. Black numbers designate table spaces in front of each wooden armchair. 

And what chairs these are! As far as wooden chairs go, the Rose Main Reading Room’s model seems designed to hold you and keep you, providing a firm launching pad for your loftiest thoughts. 

In these chairs, no amateurish, collegiate study positions are tolerated. Your feet rest so solidly on the floor, they will never seek out under-table ledges or chair rungs; they will not curl up beneath you. The arms, a graceful slope of polished wood, support the arms all the way to the table edge, where they meet it at perfect ergonomic height for typing or writing. The seat features a slight depression for each thigh. The curved chair-back hits just below the shoulder blades, and the carved central slat ensures your spine is straight. The legs are not on casters, and it takes a forceful nudge to wrest them from their spot, making it even easier to just stay put. 

In fact, the grating of the chair legs scraping the floor tiles is perhaps the most prominent sound in the room. The silence of the Rose Reading Room is the most dignified—sacred, even—of any public space I’ve encountered in the city. There is no laughter, chatter, or exclamations, only muffled coughs, the clicks of pens and the plastic buckles on backpacks. 

The distant rattles and bangs of the medieval book-delivery machine in the center of the room, which conveys books from the library’s forty-mile inner sanctum of shelves, seem to echo the churnings of the many minds bent over the tables. And if your mind should chance to wander, all you have to do is stay right there in your seat and look up to the ceiling, where, fifty-two feet above, ceiling panels painted with luminous sky and billowing clouds greet you, offering escape and, perhaps, inspiration. 



As Alfred Kazin described the room more than a hundred years ago, “There was something about the vibrating empty rooms early in the morning—light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning the smooth tops of the golden tables as if they had been freshly painted—that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves.”