Some come from around the corner, and others from around the world. Some are seeking knowledge and truth, while others are looking for nothing more than a pleasant means of whiling away a summer's day.
But whatever their origin or motive, be they tourists or students or workers on a lunch break, a broad cross-section of humanity is bound together on a recent summer afternoon by a book in hand and the inviting nooks and crannies of New York City's Central Park.
For book lovers, of course, reading is a pleasure that knows no season. But summer's sunny skies and warm temperatures - those particularly alluring conditions for getting lost in a book - make only a brief appearance each year in the Northeast. And to many readers, that makes a trip to Frederick Law Olmsted's urban preserve all but inevitable.
Scott Provan, a student of literature from London, just arrived in New York for his first visit yesterday. He has already managed to find, first, a good bookstore, and second, Central Park. He sits with his back to the park's boat pond while enjoying poetry - in the original German - by Rainer Maria Rilke.
"The poems are about evening and quiet," he explains. "It helps keep your mind cool." As for the park, he says he's already fallen in love. "I like to compare parks around the world," he explains. "And this one, it's lovely."
Just a few yards away from Scott sits Emma Haworth, another British tourist. But Ms. Haworth is from Lancashire, and favors a different kind of reading. It's a story of loss but with a happy ending, she says holding up "Charity," by Lesley Pearse. "It's my kind of book."
Haworth has been visiting friends in town for a week now, and has seen the Bronx Zoo and Times Square, but finds that on weekdays, while her friends are at their offices, the park - near the water and with a book - is the nicest place to be.
For some readers, the sound of children at play is the best backdrop to time spent with a book. That is certainly the case for Kathy Golden, who, in a small gated playground hugging Fifth Avenue, is keeping one eye on her eight-year-old son even as she's focusing on "Reading a Middle School Curriculum."
Ms. Golden and her family are in New York for a few days for her husband's job. Son Steven has discovered that - along with FAO Schwartz and the Disney Store - the park is one of his favorite spots. His mother, meanwhile, who teaches third grade in Cambridge, Mass., needs to push forward on reading related to her effort to become a literary coordinator.
"This spot is ideal for us," says Golden. "It's fenced in, it's in the shade. I just have to look up every other paragraph or so."
But not every reader is enjoying the park amid the luxury of a summer vacation. For some, an hour spent with a book outdoors is a valued respite from work.
A little ways up from the Goldens sits Monique Crous, a Ralph Lauren sales associate. She is perusing "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden, oblivious to the miniature sail boats drifting gently past on a small pond.
A recent transplant from Chicago, Ms. Crous says that reading in the park on her lunch hour has become a pleasant new habit. "It's nice to be here near the water."
Also enjoying a break from work is Sharleen Klein, a special-education teacher at a New York private school whose regular school term just finished. This morning she cleaned her desk out and came immediately to the park to find a quiet spot in which to read "Carolina Moon," a mystery by Nora Roberts.
"I love mysteries and romance," she says. "When I read, I don't want to think." She's trying particularly hard not to think about Monday, when she begins teaching summer school. This afternoon, at least, she's free. "I take it while I can."
Rachel Shapiro and Cassandre Connolly - "We're best friends," they quickly assert - took the day off from their summer retail jobs to celebrate Rachel's birthday. They're camped on a blanket in the grass with a birthday bouquet lying next to them as they read poetry out loud.
Both girls just finished high school and are heading off to different colleges in the fall. But they grew up in the city and have learned to love, Ms. Connolly explains, "the silence, the open space" of the park.
What may be familiar to them, however, is uncharted territory to many others. For Javier Sanchez, a first-time visitor from Puerto Rico, Central Park - and New York itself - is a new discovery. "I just like everything about it."
And for the moment, he says, he can't think of anything nicer than sitting on a park bench reading "Above the Clouds" by Jonathan Bach - in Spanish translation - and occasionally glancing up at passers-by. "So many different people," he marvels.
The lure of green, growing things may be especially enticing to those who are kept indoors much of the day by their jobs. Chava Elmaleh has finished her workday as a pre-school teacher on the upper West Side and is now lying stretched out on her stomach on the grass reading "One True Thing" by Anna Quindlen, unconcerned about the fate of her clean white blouse.
"I'm done working now, I don't care what happens to it," she says. This is a favorite after-work activity, she explains. "I like to hang out on the grass and chill out, and I'm a big reader so it's perfect."
But perhaps the simplest explanation for the appeal of taking books into the park comes from Samantha and Alex Boyen, a big-sister-little-brother combo who are each stretched out on adjoining ledges in the shadow of the park's Belvedere Castle.
She's reading "Snow in September" by Rachel Lee (she describes it as "a fluff novel" set in the mountains of Colorado) while he's studying a bird guide.
"It was a nice day and we were in the area," Samantha says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society