Let there be Light

I get a Carleton alumni magazine a few times a year, and in the latest issue, I was really happy to read the MacOdrum Library is getting a much needed facelift.

MacOdrum Library. Don’t be fooled – building in picture looks nicer than in reality

This library is so ugly it never once crossed my mind to take a picture of it in the four years I was there, and I take pictures of a lot of things. So ugly that a prof even went on a rant one class about how uninspiring it is, and how can students be expected to respect a space that doesn’t respect itself? The only good thing about that library was its hours–it stayed open pretty late, but I’ve heard that has since changed.

libraryAs the article says, everybody hates the tiny, jail cell windows. Ask anyone who’s ever studied there. And unless you have a super long torso, there’s no chance you’re even going to get a view of the quad because the windows are way too high. Did the architects think students would be less distracted if they didn’t have a window to look out of?

The renovation plan, which aims to be completed by the end of 2013, is to push out the front by six meters and to cover those four floors with one large window. The space between the current wall and the new wall will be a socializing/group study space. This expansion also seeks to rectify the growing problem of a lack of study carrels by increasing its seats from 1200 to 2000.

The future MacOdrum Library. SO. MUCH. BETTER.

The future MacOdrum Library. SO. MUCH. BETTER.

Too bad it didn’t look like that when I was there. You can imagine my relief when I arrived at the University of Victoria for grad school and was greeted with this:

William C Mearns Library. What a difference!
Photograph by Vince Klassen. © 2008 UVic Communications

That entire glass wing is called the Students Galleria and it has extremely comfortable chairs. I would sit with my books and my laptop and bathe in the bright sunlight, waiting for inspiration to strike or maybe burn me through those windows, and the connection between libraries and illumination was all too clear but I didn’t care if it was cliché because here was a spot I liked to study. In openness, in light.

Where the magic happened

These two university libraries got me thinking about a loosely similar contrast in the New York Public Library. When I was there with a friend last October, our tour guide pointed to the ceiling in the antechamber of the breathtaking Rose Main Reading Room.

mural in antechamber of NYPL reading room

The antechamber features a large mural with dark, chaotic clouds packed together. It’s supposed to make you feel tense, unsure, because that’s how research often is. You embark on a project and have no idea what you’re getting into.

But as you stick with it, either you get used to the dark or it’s actually not dark anymore (see the Emily Dickinson poem below), and suddenly, you’re in a completely new space. The clouds part, the sky speaks in a softer blue, and the sun shines gloriously through.

New York Public Library Main Reading Room

Let there be light.

We grow accustomed to the Dark–

When Light is put away–

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye–

 

A Moment–We uncertain step

For newness of the night–

Then–fit our Vision to the Dark–

And meet the Road–erect–

 

And so of larger–Darknesses

Those Evenings of the Brain–

When not a Moon disclose a sign–

Or Star–come out—within–

 

The Bravest–grope a little–

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead–

But as they learn to see–

 

Either the darkness alters–

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight–

And Life steps almost straight.

 

~Emily Dickinson

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

When I recently went back to Victoria to visit some friends, the University of Victoria’s 50th anniversary was also going on at the time. I attended the English Department’s special 50th anniversary reception entitled For the Love of Books.

Part of the evening included readings by alumni, current students and professors, sharing from their favourite books they had submitted to this blog. At the end of the evening, I left with the list of 50 favourite books the department had compiled for the celebration. Of course I liked to check off which ones I have and haven’t read. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was on that list – another reason why I decided to read it in addition to this reason.

On the 50 Special Books blog, the contributors gave a quotation from the book and an explanation of why they liked the quote or what special significance it has had for them in life.

I just finished reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and there are many quotes I could pick out. Even though it went at a slow pace in many places, I appreciated that it wasn’t “about” one particular thing. Told through the young girl Francie’s perspective, it describes her family’s experience growing up in poverty in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn from 1902 until 1919. Over 500 pages, this experience seems to capture everything there is to capture about life. As the foreword says, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line. The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human.”

Since two passions of mine are cities and stories (and Francie wants to be a writer), I’ll choose a passage for each of these categories to share with you:

Cities:

Not far away was the lovely span of the Williamsburg Bridge. Across the East River, like a fairy city made of silver cardboard, the skyscrapers loomed cleanly. There was the Brooklyn Bridge further away like an echo of the nearer bridge.

“It’s pretty,” said Francie. “It’s pretty the same way pictures of in-the-country are pretty.”

“I go over that bridge sometimes when I go to work,” Johnny [her father] said.

Francie looked at him in wonder. He went over that magic bridge and still talked and looked like always? She couldn’t get over it. She put out her hand and touched his arm. Surely the wonderful experience of going over that bridge would make him feel different. She was disappointed because his arm felt as it had always felt.

I got very excited at this part because I feel the same way as Francie about bridges – they must change you in some way when you reach the other side. (that will be another post for another day). But then Francie eventually crosses the bridge near the end of the story and this is what she concludes:

The Bridge had been the first disappointment. Looking at it from the roof of her house, she had thought that crossing it would make her feel like a gossamer-winged fairy flying through the air. But the actual ride over the Bridge was no different than the ride above the Brooklyn streets. The Bridge was paved in sidewalks and traffic roads like the streets of Broadway and the tracks were the same tracks. There was no different feeling about the train as it went over the Bridge. New York was disappointing. The buildings were higher and the crowds thicker; otherwise it was little different from Brooklyn. From now on, would all new things be disappointing, she wondered?

Stories:

Gently, Teacher explained the difference between a lie and a story. A lie was something you told because you were mean or were a coward. A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened. Only you didn’t tell it like it was; you told it like you thought it should have been. . . Francie was ten years old when she first found an outlet in writing. What she wrote was of little consequence. What was important was that the attempt to write stories kept her straight on the dividing line between truth and fiction. If she had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar.”

And because I really like this one, here’s one about life and the necessity of story. Francie’s grandmother, Mary Rommely, is telling her daughter (Katie) what she should teach Francie as she grows up. She tells her to teach stories of fairy tales and ghosts and elves and dwarfs and Kris Kringle. Katie asks her mom, “Why? When I myself, do not believe?”

“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. . .”

“The child will grow up and find out things for herself. She will know that I lied. She will be disappointed.”

“That is what is called learning the truth. It is a good thing to learn the truth one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”

a fairytale gingerbread house

In the novel, you see Francie’s emotions stretch. You see her learn the truth. You see her believe with all her heart and then not believe. Whether you agree this is good – I’ll leave that for you to ponder.