On the grass next to the HCL, some twenty ‘zitties’, Leeuwarden City of Literature’s comfortable folding chairs, are set out and ready for this afternoon’s readers. Shortly after 1pm, a group of readers have already gathered, books in hand. A little uncomfortable? No, not really. Sitting opposite me are two young women who’ve just visited the Culturele Apotheek (‘Cultural Chemist’), each with a book in their hands. They take a selfie with their phones and then start reading.

At the Culturele Apotheek where two women in white coats are on hand to answer all kinds of questions, a member of the security staff appears. Is there a problem? The man laughs, not especially. A little further away, the roof of the Aldehou is covered in Lego figures peering inquisitively into the Prinsentuin. A strapping twenty-year-old, sporty sort asks if he can pat the dog belonging to one of the selfie women. He starts chatting flirtatiously – they’re not getting very far in their books. Opposite me, however, a calm fifty-year old has started reading. She’s not letting anything stop her reading her book with a dragon on the cover called Wat ons niet zal doden (What won’t kill us).

Closer to the path, a man in a cap is reading a book by Douglas Adams. Rutger van der Velde, from the bookshop, is opposite him, sitting in the shade of a tree. It’s pleasantly warm and not so windy here. The telephone rings and he puts his book down. It sounds like he’s advising someone. Then he walks away with his phone. Is everything ok with the shop?

A boy aged about 11 puts two chairs opposite each other to make a kind of bench. It’s important to be comfortable when you read. But not too comfortable as that makes you lazy and that’s not good. The muscly young man from earlier is now sitting next to a friend on a bench and still watching the women with the dog. He jumps athletically onto the bench and does a somersault but he can’t distract the objects of his affections from their books. One-nil for literature!

There are special cardboard boxes to put your phones in. That helps, but they still need to be checked occasionally. Akke, one of the chemists, explains what they do while I check out the area and really do see three phones where there should be books! “Some people used to read a lot but they’ve lost it now.” She chats with patients to find out what the ailments are. Restlessness? Stress? Lack of imagination? What do people like reading? “Our prescriptions start for instance starting with reading for 15 minutes a day and then building that up gradually.” Even Akke has books with her, Xerox by Fien Veldman. “Turns out she’s also from Friesland.” It’s true. Fien was born in Leeuwarden, City of Literature!

“Is anyone sitting here?” At about half-past two, reading has got into full swing. All the chairs are filled and a few readers sit on blankets spread out here and there. One person’s reading a book called Ocean on top, while another is submerged in The Wind in the Willows. I’ve almost finished Fuortsjefinne by André Looijenga. The birds are chirping in the clear sky, the insects are crawling through the green grass, the gothic mother and daughter on the path. Are they aware of our fight against the machine?

Natalia, the photographer, has just spoken to a couple sitting on a blanket. “They said this is different to reading a book in your flat. It’s nice to not feel like you’re on your own.” They’ve got a point. Maybe that’s the magic of mobile phones; that you don’t feel alone. “I’m not really a reader, but my wife devours books,” says a man to chemist Akke. She thinks for a while. “Can you handle books that are a little absurd?”

Karen from Aldegea is sitting with her husband in the middle of the grass. She’s got The Wedding by Dorothy West with her. “It sounds as if it should be a romantic novel, but it isn’t.” She’s working on a documentary about the slavery past and the book goes well with the subject. The woman with the dragon book has disappeared and there’s now a man with Kennedy’s Brain (Henning Mankell) in his hand. But he ends up getting his e-reader out. Is that allowed? Isn’t that a machine? Ach.

Around three o’clock there’s a crisis moment. More and more phones. One reader, just three metres away from the chemist (!) has been typing on her phone for twenty minutes, while Yvonne Keul’s Madame my mother lies next to her. And there are more. The girl with The Wind in the Willows – a book about the conflict with modern times – for instance. And two thirtysomethings wearing leggings collapse onto chairs with no books in their hands and no plans to read. The phones quickly appear. 

Reading time is a wonderful time. The Oldehove strikes three. Or three-thirty? Bells chime all around us. Obviously time is not uniform. The older couple sitting behind want to drink something, but the cup has leaked in the bag. They’ve never been to the Prinsentuin before. The park is slowly getting busier. The big reading lamp in the sky is covered by clouds. I start reading Skaadhûn (Shadow Dog) by Syds Wiersma.

The couple with the e-reader have brought snacks. Peanuts, blocks of cheese, chunks of pineapple, slices of dried sausage. Reading and snacking are a good match. The wind picks up. I’m on a poetry beach.

Some time around four, loud music resonates from the water and a boat passes with the Frisia youth team. They’ve just won the championship. High, loud voices. They’ll be coarse tomorrow. There are still people reading, but fewer and fewer. No, no phones, but discussions. Readers start talking to each other. That’s also a good thing. That too is a victory against the machine.

Programmed by Leeuwarden UNESCO City of Literature in collaboration with met Norwich UNESCO City of Literature and The Book Hive. Supported by the Cities of Literature network.

Why Page Against the Machine? Read here an interview with Joe Hedinger, bookseller at the The Book Hive in Norwich UNESCO City of Literature.

Text: Arjan Hut
Photo’s: Natalia Balanina