In the Library
It was a few days before graduation, and I was dreading the festivities. I had enjoyed my time at the Kennedy School, felt satisfied, and just wanted to end the year in my own way. I didn’t want to march hither and yon, sit in a big throng of gowned students, be part of a gaggle. I didn’t want to hear a fresh infusion of the “Can you believe we’re at Harvard!” talk that had cropped up throughout the year among us mid-career students. Sometimes these exclamations reflected genuine wonderment, other times they seemed a pretext for patting ourselves on the back. Surely, I reasoned, graduation would bring out the stinkiest strains of this enthusiasm. If I was going to get puffed up, I wanted to do it in private.
I thought that a stroll in the Yard, as the original Harvard campus is known, might help my attitude. But when I entered the bricky enclave of the old college, it was a shock to see 10 foot banners festooning porticos and strategically placed trees, each emblazed with the school motto: “Veritas.” This barrage of the Harvard brand, which seemed fundamentally at odds with actual truth seeking, did nothing to remove my dour frame of mind. A friend remarked about the fascist display. Strictly speaking, the banners were burgundy, not bright red, but their trumpeting of truth without actually telling it did give off a disquieting, All Hail quiver. As I walked among the rows of folding chairs and roped off sections of lawn, I could hardly believe that I would be experiencing a rite of passage there in a few days. Well, I told myself, I would attend, but I wouldn’t give myself over to any collective delirium.
Then I decided to go inside Widener Library, from whose massive columns even larger “Veritas” banners were flapping. My ID was expiring soon, and I only had a few more days of access to the stacks. I slid my ID through the scanner and walked down the marble hall, turning left into the checkout room. Past the desk a bored looking work study student checked my ID again, and I was allowed into a nondescript elevator and stairway entrance. Plain as it appeared, this entryway made me do an inner prance, because it was a launch point into a world I’d never seen before Harvard: multiple floors deep in the ground whose only purpose was to contain three million books, almost any of which I could bring home. Best of all, my literary delectation could take place in solitude. I seldom saw anyone on these floors, and when I did, my fellow browser and I instinctively ducked our heads and avoided contact.
I ran down a few flights at random and opened the door to a huge dark room, kept noticeably cool. The only things to be seen were bookcases, uniformly shaped and immaculately filled. As I walked in, sensors tracked my steps and lights came on one after the other—thwack, thwack, thwack. The room’s automated gesture of welcome always felt gracious and like an excellent use of the many thousands of dollars I had contributed to the Harvard coffers.
The pages of each book I pulled were white and dustless. If fragile, the book was encased in a hard cover and bound with an elastic cord. I could pull open the cover and carefully turn the oniony pages, then seal the book up for the next peruser. That particular floor contained Charles Darwin’s letters and musings on an array of subjects, although I could not immediately find a copy of his tome, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould,” which I, a fan of worms, had in paperback. Surely that treatise was in here somewhere. I searched for a while and then became distracted by an art book on Spanish painters. The book was too big to lug home, so I read it on the stairs in satisfying seclusion.
A few weeks earlier I had been on that same floor and had found and brought home a copy of Sonnets from the Portugese. Published in 1902, it was small, with gilt edged pages and art deco illustrations. A frontispiece notation marked it as the former property of a New England lady, who had donated it from her personal library. It was well worn, but no one but me had checked it out since 1973, so presumably its owner had cherished it. The physical book itself gave me pleasure—its curvy, pastel drawings, the thick yet delicate pages. I also found that reading its poems aloud at odd times of day calmed me down when I was feeling nervous about exams.
I especially loved Sonnet Number 29. It described how Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s thoughts about her beloved encased the living man in a strangling mental shrubbery, twinings that she exhorts him to lay bare, so that she might encounter him more clearly. I had covered lovers with such shrubbery many times. How easy—to cloak confounding realities with a mental cast that leaches their aliveness. The sonnet both explored that instinct and offered a braver alternative. Often, just before turning off my bedside lamp for the night, I would take a last look at Number 29 and feel new possibilities stirring.
Now, back in the library after my unsatisfying walk in the Yard, staring at the spot on the shelves where I had found the book of sonnets weeks before, I felt that stirring again. At the same time, an unpleasant truth had to be faced: the book was in my bag, but it wasn’t mine. Even worse, the library wanted it back. My access to this building was contingent on being a paying student, and that time was up. I didn’t want to return the book. Sure, I could buy my own copy of the sonnets, even a quaintly used one, but it wouldn’t be the same. I wanted this book in particular, this package of color, history, and words, the very one that had taught me so much. Why, I wondered, should my bond with this little volume be subject to some external system of rules? Once returned to Widener, the book might not be pulled from its shelf for another 30 years. Why shouldn’t I keep it forever?
I stood looking up at the bookshelf for a good while. Some of the lights further down the room turned themselves off, and soon I was standing in a comfortable semi-darkness. Just me and the books. But was that really the case? Someone could be on their way down here this very minute and wouldn’t that be a good thing? Wasn’t it good to hope that potential sonnet lovers were born every day and that this beautiful book might be the medium for helping one or two of them learn a new response to love, as I had done? Wasn’t the library a place dedicated to the catalytic experience that words and pictures could have on people, unknown people, whose potential for unfolding the building’s founders had taken on faith? And who were we lurkers in the library but people bound by a common experience of needing to be around books? My borrowed copy of the sonnets had been passed from hand to hand, with the occasional hiatus, and it was now imbued with the spirit of all of us who had held it, stared at it, set it down with a sigh or a thump.
Harvard had dedicated millions of dollars to encourage this shared experience of literary savoring, from the care of the volumes to the stern email warnings I had already received about returning the book on time. My curmudgeonly attitude toward the school began to soften. What could be more veritas fostering than Widener Library? Maybe the building deserved to fly those obnoxious banners after all. I left the cool room, remounted the stairs, and handed the book of sonnets over the counter. I watched it being borne away on a cart and didn’t feel so bad.