When I was in grad school and my parents got the new house, the room where I was housed over the holidays turned out to be a micro holiday miracle:

My mom had positioned the bed right next to a shelf of some of her favorite children’s books from back during her teaching days. Thus, every holiday visit turned into an opportunity for regression.

I regressed not just because I was 31 and

  • still in grad school
  • still refusing to marry or have children, both on principles my parents surely found somewhat eccentric
  • still coming home for every winter break
  • still answering questions like “how’s your dissertation coming along?” (a question for which there are no comforting answers)

Yup: I also regressed because I’d stay up late every night re-reading classic children’s books, most of which I’d also re-read the previous year.

It’s a regression to the ca. 12-year-old me, who upon finishing a book immediately flipped back to page 1. That practice of re-reading seems to have ended in high school; even now I only re-read those books I keep assigning in my classes (and let’s face it: class assignments don’t count).

Thus, what fun to re-read childhood favorites like E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or — silliest of all — Roald Dahl’s The Witches.

(This title is excellent and I also quite liked the film version, with Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. In contrast, I think the film version of Matilda [1996] actually improves on Dahl’s original book, and features the best little Mara Wilson in the title role and Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as her horrible parents.)

If I was prepared for much late-night weeping, I’d re-read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, the sweetest and saddest tale about friendship ever

In recent years the room has been reorganized again, such that the children’s books have been shelved in some other part of the house. Somehow the fact that those spines aren’t sitting there next to me every night has prevented me from hunting them down and staying up every night till 3am, giggling over that deliciously scary/silly moment in The Witches when the little boy sees all the witches whipping their wigs off their scabby heads and scratching their scalps with their clawed hands.

Don’t worry: I still do a lot of reading while I’m there. I still seem to arrive with a minimum of four books.

But thinking about how different this year’s visit was has made me want to visit the library and pick up a couple of titles. And maybe push Matilda up to the top of my Netflix queue.

 

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.