Our Reading Lives

Reading on a Noisy Fire Escape

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Natalie Layne Baker

Staff Writer

Natalie Layne Baker's writing has appeared at Audible, Hachette, Book Riot, Submittable, Entropy, Memoir Mixtapes, Howl Round, and Bone & Ink Lit Zine. She currently resides in Philadelphia.

The first time my roommates and I toured our apartment, the fire escape caught my eye. Just off the living room, the narrow steel platform is a lovely perch from which to view the noisy northern Manhattan avenue we’ve recently begun calling home. I like sitting out here, among the music and laughter on the sidewalk four stories below; lit by the storefronts and street lamps unfurling before me toward the northern tip of the island; smelling my roommate’s ashtray and the restaurant across the street making arepas.

Out here, I sit and belong among the world in a way that comforts me with its detachment. It is a safe haven for an introvert who regardless craves proof that other humans are around. It is a slice of world in which the greatest anxiety is remembering to close the window screen so the cats can’t get out.

I love to read out here. I love to write out here. I love losing myself to words as the noisy world thrums and breathes around me. This, somehow, in spite of the fact that I require an intense focus to make any meaningful progress on either of these tasks. I’m a horrendous multitasker, who must silence their phone and put it in the other room should I expect to get even a chapter read; in order to write even one sentence I must give myself to the task completely. I cannot hold conversation, listen to music, or eat food, lest my mind pull me away to the other activity.

Why, then, do I write and read so well on the fire escape? What is it about reading on a noisy perch that puts me in a productive head space?

It would seem that the liveliness of northern Manhattan on a Friday night is a firm antithetical to the rapt silence of a public library, or austerely stooping over my desk, bedroom door locked and curtains drawn shut. One might expect the conversation of the people passing beneath might distract, the honking horns might grate, and the thunderous subwoofer of a passing SUV might rattle—yet, none do.

I suppose there’s a vital sense of detachment. I do not generate any of this noise, and quite literally sit above it. But I don’t want to believe that’s the whole of it—if I felt totally removed from the scene around me, why would I seek it out?

Writing, to me, ultimately boils down to communication. I write to express a thought. I read to absorb the thoughts of others, to let them comfort me, to disagree with them, to reinvent myself with each new volume. Whatever you read—a novel, the news, a blog—exists within and as a reflection of the world to which it belongs. I read to bridge the gap between myself and the Tokyo of Norwegian Wood, the sprawling landscapes of the Lord of the Rings, or Princeton-by-way-of-Nigeria in Americanah. I write in hopes of offering my New York (by way of Ohio, by way of New Jersey) to anyone I might be so lucky to have read my work.

When I frame it this way, it doesn’t make much sense to read or write anywhere quieter, less full of life.