…in which I confess my true religion and why I do what I do

26 December 2011

The magic of the library. What a sucker I am for beautiful web exhibits like this one on the 25 most beautiful college libraries in the world. College libraries have been havens for me since my undergrad days when I spent long hours in the sunny, tiny reading room of my residential college. If you asked me about my religion, I’d have to say it’s practiced in cathedrals like this one in Baltimore:

If this were a glossy coffee table book (with more than 25 libraries, obvs), I’d buy it in a second. Author/photographers, please get on that, would you? One from Coimbra, Portugal:

My partner and I used to snicker a bit when, while traveling, our friends would demand that we make obligatory stops in historic cathedrals or Shaker meeting houses or ancient temples — almost to the exclusion of all kinds of other obligatory tourist destinations. Having grown up mostly sans conventional religion, religious sites have less meaning to me except insofar as they allow me to imagine how nice it would be to enjoy faith and communal gathering. As much as I love seeing those spaces, I don’t experience the same wave of utter trust as when I walk into a beautiful library.

My faith, you see, has been practiced in different cathedrals, such that I have made it my life’s work to be close to college libraries on a regular basis. And when we travel, we visit as many beautiful libraries as we can; I’ll never forget one I visited in Mexico. Who wouldn’t want to worship knowledge and human achievement in such spaces, like this one at Yale?

So yeah, I spit bile and fire on a regular basis when universities lose their minds, which is often. Sometimes I sink into impossible depressions about what feels like the increasing limitations on professors’ ability to educate. Walking into these spaces serves an important purpose of the renewal of faith.

When I was a kid one of the many books I read, re-read, and nearly memorized was E. L. Konisburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a children’s book that appealed on many levels (the siblings run away from home; the book offers nearly a how-to on running away, such that it almost eliminates your desires to do so; they hide out in the Metropolitan Museum; they ultimately scour through Mrs. Frankweiler’s crazy filing system).

As much as I loved it, my own dreams were haunted by the possibility of sleeping in the library, pulling one book after another off the shelf all night for total indulgence.

I no longer have those dreams, perhaps because so many libraries now feature such singularly uncomfortable furniture.

But then I look at images like those above and imagine the wonders I could find on those shelves. And my faith is renewed.

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5 Responses to “…in which I confess my true religion and why I do what I do”

  1. servetus Says:

    These are all delightful cathedrals. I admit that I cultivated “From the Mixed Up Files” dreams about my favorite German library. Except that I saw the arm the alarm system once, and saw the way that the light beams cut through the stacks, and realized it would ahve been a very motionless evening 🙂

  2. phylly3 Says:

    I love touring libraries – the huge, beautiful ones especially. But I also find you learn so much about a small town by checking out their local library. The communities that care about public libraries are the ones who care about culture and even more importantly, it shows they care about those who are less fortunate then themselves.

    • servetus Says:

      absolutely agree about strong public libraries=communities that care about educational access for *everyone*.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, you’re too right — but these are more like the real-life country parish churches where normal people like us learn to worship, right? Not the great cathedrals to which we make pilgrimages. A favorite of mine:
      one-room library

  3. Dienna Says:

    Those are beautiful libraries. Stunning architecture.

    You’re right—they should make a coffee table out of these photos!


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