Several years ago, I stood at my college reunion, in the Timothy Dwight courtyard, under a gigantic tent shielding us from the pounding rain. A friend asked how I’d describe my quintessential experience as an undergrad. Intense adolescent relationships that evolved into lifelong friendships? An education founded on insatiable curiosity? Professors whose lectures moved me to tears? All true. But for me, more than any one of those, Beinecke Rare Book Library captured the essence of my four years at Yale.
I wandered into Beinecke in my rookie year, unhinged by my first set of midterms, looking for a quiet place to regroup. The cold was sharp for a Californian, and I hurried along Wall Street, avoiding the more populated Elm. I glanced to the right, and found myself facing an odd structure, strangely beautiful. I had passed by several times, but this time I stopped.
To this day, I’ve never seen anything as compelling as Beinecke. The walls are white marble squares – thick, strong, bizarrely translucent. The level of humidity, the placement of the sun, the density of the clouds all guide the light through the marble, a canvas always quivering, shifting, alive. Grays, browns and whites interweave with hints of yellows and pinks, a spectrum simultaneously limited and infinite. Shapes created by the light chase each other through the marble blocks, changing as a breeze repositions a cloud, a ray of sun gives way to a shadow – designs born of the unpredictable.
The center of the library is a gigantic pillar, encased in clear glass, holding several soaring levels of rare books and manuscripts. Hundreds of thousands of works. Written history. Yours, mine, ours. Inspiring, riveting, oddly comforting.
The surrounding area, open to the public, holds several glass cases, each with a rare book or manuscript. On that reunion weekend, I was greeted by two Gutenberg Bibles. I then moved on to Beatrix Potter, Alice In Wonderland, and maps of the “100 Aker Wood” from The World Of Pooh. I admired manuscripts from San Francisco and Marseilles, and smiled in surprise at a case of pages covered in startlingly bright silk, crimson and royal blue.
This weird and wonderful place captures my college experience – a time of compatible juxtapositions. Clunky blocks of impenetrable rock with light effortlessly flowing through. A Gutenberg Bible companionably next to Peter Rabbit. Serious and playful. Respectful and lighthearted. Reverent and fun. Beinecke makes no sense whatsoever, and somehow reinstates meaning and truth.
Beinecke and I met decades ago at a personal low point. Crushed and demoralized, I wondered if my career at Yale would end with those first exams. But it didn’t. I figured out how to take a test. I discovered I enjoyed writing papers. I stopped worrying that I was the most pathetic specimen ever to be admitted. I learned and struggled and learned more. Over time, I forgot to be afraid when I struggled. I had fun. I returned to Beinecke possibly thirty times during those four years, through ups and downs, calms and storms, disappointments and triumphs.
I don’t remember the exhibit on display when I first entered. I don’t remember the precise palette of light on Beinecke’s walls that day. I do remember my amazement. Even more, I remember that as I journeyed around the second floor, my curiosity returned and with it, confidence followed by perspective. Yale and I were a new relationship. We were off to a rocky start, but we had four years to work it out.
And we did.
4 responses to “Light, Truth and Peter Rabbit”
Great post! Libraries can have as great of an impact on us as the collections they house. They truly can be sanctuaries.
Libraries serve all sorts of important roles. Each seems to have a distinct personality. Gratitude to every librarian!
What a nice metaphor for your time at Yale, Amy. Rare books, rare experiences. The Gutenberg Bible may be famous for moveable type, but I would stare at the hand painted designs on whatever page they had opened in the case and think about some monk with a dark hood bending over his desk by candle light with a row of different colored quills. Who knows what they really looked like, but that’s what I saw, and felt a little envious of all that uninterrupted time to focus but extremely thankful I wasn’t one.
I had a low stint at the beginning of my time at Yale too. My relief came from playing harmonica in the squash court in Silliman. Even bad wailing sounded cool enough to lift me out of the funk.
PS I just called the Beineke Library and they confirmed that the illuminations were hand printed, but unlikely it was done in a monastery. The owner of the book probably received the printed copy with just the type, and then sent it to a group who did the hand painted additions for a fee. So much for my monk.
To Amy, I also told them to search for this article!
Fascinating to hear about your experience at Beinecke. And hold onto the idea of your “monk” — what a marvelous image! Thanks so much for letting them know about my post!