An evening at Dublin’s new Silent Book Club: ‘It’s free, it’s chill’

Monthly gathering at Dublin’s Mish.Mash Art Caffè aims to create a calm, welcoming space to read with others

In our always-on era, it can be hard to find a moment of deliberate pause. So it’s no surprise to see that a refreshing new take on the book club has been drawing a big crowd to Dublin’s Mish.Mash Art Caffé on Capel Street. But this isn’t your ordinary book club, a place for wine-fuelled discussions or debates about one novel. This is a more mindful take on things: the Silent Book Club.

Silent Book Club was founded in 2012 by two American friends, Guinevere de la Mare and Laura Gluhanich. They loved reading in companionable silence together, and felt that others would welcome the opportunity too. With no prescribed reading involved, they pitch the Silent Book Club as being an “introvert happy hour”.

The “silent” refers to the two or so hours where participants are invited to sit together reading whatever book they choose, without any pressure. The founders of the Dublin chapter of Silent Book Club are friends Maeve O’Brien, who works for the Digital Repository of Ireland, and Zoë Coleman, who works in cultural heritage. They hope their venture (which is “monthly-ish” and has held five meetups so far) will inspire readers and help form a loose community that’s based around books rather than booze.

Co Tyrone native O’Brien and Co Sligo native Coleman are both in their 30s, and have lived in the capital for a varying number of years. Both have a keen interest in community and connection, and met online in the days of LiveJournal, an early iteration of the social media that we know today.

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To kick off Silent Book Club Dublin on the night, the pair introduce themselves then ask everyone to go around the room and tell us what they’ve brought to read (keeping with the theme, there’s no pressure on people to contribute). There’s a mix of book choices, from Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, to The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, to The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber.

“I just picked it up on a whim – it’s all right so far,” says one woman about the crime page-turner she is reading, while on the far side of the room another woman tells us: “I’m reading Milkman [by Anna Burns], which I think is a very famous novel, but I’ve got no clue what it’s about.” There’s no one stepping in to booksplain that Milkman won the Booker Prize in 2018, though O’Brien offers to chat afterwards as the book is set in Northern Ireland. At Silent Book Club Dublin, the vibe is “chill”.

Lorraine McMahon found Silent Book Club Dublin through a search for events in Dublin on Google. She came with her friend Sharon, and has brought along Thomas Morris’s short story collection, Open Up. “I work as a secondary schoolteacher and I liked the idea of coming together and having silence for a length of time,” she says. “I wasn’t even really too sure what to expect, to be honest. There’s a real intimacy to it – you walk in, and it’s very cute and cosy.”

I liked that it wasn’t a prescribed book. And I liked that it was a time to just read, because there are so many other distractions in life

After O’Brien and Coleman spent a few hours last year in The Circular pub in Rialto reading together, they realised two things: that it was a delight, and that they’d like to bring the idea to other people. “We’re big on building community,” says Coleman. “Some people are introverted or socially anxious, so this is a nice way to be around people without an expectation of having to talk to people directly.” They got in touch with the Silent Book Club organisation, and at the tail end of 2023 the Dublin chapter joined more than 500 other Silent Book Club chapters across 50 countries.

“I’m relatively new in Dublin. I wanted to try and meet people but it’s difficult, especially in your 30s,” says O’Brien. “It’s difficult to find somewhere that doesn’t revolve around alcohol; it’s difficult to find things that are inexpensive as well. What’s great about this is it’s free, it’s chill, and it’s low commitment.”

Mish. Mash also hosts chess nights and gigs, with plans for more evening events. “It’s a nice community here,” says its softly-spoken owner Karolina. “The pedestrianization is slowly making a difference.” Though she wasn’t sure what a “silent book club” was when Coleman and O’Brien approached her, she likes the event’s atmosphere.

The Silent Book Club Dublin ethos is that it’s “an absolutely welcoming space for anyone who wants to come along”, says Coleman. Every month they post a mood board to the event’s Instagram page, which underscores how the aim is to help people disconnect from the online world for a while. “A lot of it is very 90s, no digital involvement,” says O’Brien of the mood board’s images. “We don’t enforce rules but I think people do want to disconnect.”

“There’s a lot of talk now about ‘third places’,” says Coleman, referring to the sociological concept of a place in people’s lives that’s not their home or their workplace, a place for socialising and connecting. But she notes too that Dublin is seeing places that fulfil that function close down, in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the recent rise in the cost of living and VAT. In a way, says Coleman, the internet was a “third place” back in the dial-up days, but this has radically changed since smartphones emerged.

It is Carmel Lyons’ third time attending Silent Book Club. “I liked that it wasn’t a prescribed book. And I liked that it was a time to just read, because there are so many other distractions in life,” she says. She finds that attending has a knock-on effect. “This evening when I get home I’ll probably be like, ‘I want to finish that chapter’,” she says. “I’d be more likely to read tonight and then at the weekend. And then it’ll start slipping again, and then next month, there’ll be another book club.”

Miles Ndebele is sitting at the back of the cafe, reading The Chinese Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Legends. It’s his second time at Silent Book Club Dublin. “I actually finished the book, and that was the first time I finished a physical book in ages,” he says of his first visit. “I was like: I want to go back, and I want to have a new book.” He finds that the event takes him away from distractions he has at home, like his laptop and games console.

As someone who’s never drank alcohol, he’s always on the lookout for events that don’t revolve around drinking. He often goes to the Clockwork Door in Temple Bar, and says that thanks to Dry January he’s found more alcohol-free events popping up in the capital. “It feels like it’s this place where I can actually just chill. Everybody’s also very friendly,” he says of Silent Book Club Dublin.

O’Brien and Coleman hope the event inspires people around the country. “We are intentionally keeping it small, to really foster that meaningful connection and community,” says O’Brien. “We’re not looking to globalise, or franchise.”

They’re aware that to some, reading silently in a group might seem unusual. “Some people are maybe slightly sceptical, but they’re like, ‘I’ll give it a go and try it out’,” says Coleman. Adds O’Brien: “We had one sceptical friend come, and she’s a convert now.” Coleman nods: “She thought the concept was odd, but then she was vibing with it.”

The next Silent Book Club Dublin event takes place on April 11th. For more details on Silent Book Club Dublin, see www.instagram.com/silentbookclubdublin/