Isabel Shen, Division 3, Graduate school #ws16e-s2d3

This may seem like a strange answer because I am twenty-three, but my favorite place to go is the library. Any library. Line a wall with books and it automatically becomes a scene of beauty. Peruse its shelves and crack their spines to dissect the thoughts of thousands around the globe and back in time. I cannot think of a better incubator for intellectual work and pleasure.

My relationship with libraries began simply, benignly. My sister and I were elementary school children who desperately needed distraction in the dreamy heat of the Southern California summer. Perhaps ingeniously, my father carted us both to Arcadia Public Library, where within the vine-coated building we borrowed thirty, then forty, then fifty books a week to slake our childhood longing for adventure. Admit it: it is hard to find adventure in rectangle-lawned, supermarket-dotted, paved-street suburbia. Our bodies were land-locked, air-conditioned. Our minds, though, tumbled and swam through every city, every asteroid, every lake.

In a way libraries were planets and my rotund young self was their moon, their satellite. Every departure was made knowing I would return (and if I didn’t, I was literally punished--I cannot begin to remember how many late fees I’ve paid!). They were the book-filled home bases I needed to gather information and regroup my thoughts before slipping back into that void, that alien spacesuit that is my own consciousness, that is my own skin. Am I being dramatic in saying that those rows of books possess their own gravity, their own pull? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I am grateful I fell, at a young age, into their orbit.

At a university, though, libraries became something else. College itself is its own type of inscrutable galaxy we launch into, a sort of black hole in the best way, a scrambler of definitions and a gateway into new worldviews and dimensions. As an undergraduate, I got a job in a library that had only one anorexic shelf of textbooks and magazines. I checked out the same red Microeconomics textbook to hundreds of students and I wondered if reading the books everyone else was reading meant you could only think the same things everyone else was thinking. It was endemic to the institution: everywhere else on campus the austere books hugging the library walls were ignored in favor of laptops, notebooks, and tablets. I was guilty of it, too. In the deep of my mind I wished I could be dropped into a time-hole, a ballooning inward of a sac or pocket of time. I’d bring with me a bottomless bag of books and I’d sit in that peritoneal library world for weeks just reading and thinking and then climb out to see that only a minute had gone by. In reality, I’d slouch over a table in a library and hustle out problems in electrochemistry and slideshows on platelet aggregation rates. It was the playground for an existential see-saw of past and present. Reading for fun. Working for future.

Only in the warm lacunae of summer could I find joy in visiting them once more. For months I only went to university libraries to study and to check out academic journals of esoteric topics like Applied and Environmental Microbiology or International Journal of Psychophysiology. To wrestle with formulas looking like Al(H2O)3(OH)3(s) until I can no longer keep track of all the letters and hydroxides and numbers and hydrates. You begin to miss novels. You begin to miss myths. Proofreading laboratory reports and analyzing scientific articles simply cannot compare with reading fantasy. It’s like trudging through mud and reaching the edge of a clear, blue ocean. It’s like reading in black and white for months and then suddenly reading in color again.

Of course, more dazzling locations come to mind than a mere building. Yes, I have been to breathtaking places and yes, I have been sliced through and through by the world’s beauty. I have watched evening pull the sun down behind kingly mountains, I have listened to the waves persuade the shore by the rocky sea, and I have heard the vibrant symphonies wafting through majestic concert halls. Yet all of these places and emotions and memories can be captured like a butterfly and spun into words and printed into books. My favorite place, then, encapsulates multitudes.

As such, I wish everyone would realize the importance of a library. Like human skin, its walls are the only barrier keeping the vital ideas and stories of millions from bursting forth out into the day. It is there the sheltered can be startled by new language--how unfiltered! How uncouth, how cutting, and how refreshing! And it is there, also, that sheltered youth like my sister and me can be touched by the written lives of others. I think it is beautiful when children find characters in books that resonate with them. In libraries, they learn to suspend their egos and live in another person’s world. And at that moment, they have encountered empathy.

In short, a library is where I am allowed to be me: a small, insignificant individual who knows enough about the world to know she knows nothing. It is a place where I can admit that I am not enough, the life I am living is not enough, and that there are bigger, brighter, electrifying things alive that are yet to be discovered.
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