Libraries, the Princeton campus's unknown repository of sexiness
Eliot got it wrong. Obviously the cruelest month is not April but January, which generally begins with a hangover before descending into protracted slush, sore throats, and a mailbox full of "important tax documents." At Princeton, where with the most foolish of consistencies we persevere in an academic calendar hostile to nearly all our educational aims, January is the month in which we dramatize the harsh victory of the worst that we are about (Examination Period) over the best of what we are about (Reading Period).
If January has any redeeming social value, indeed, it is Reading Period. Firestone Library is never actually crowded, but as Dean's Date approaches, it's close to full; and it extends its hours up to 2 a.m., almost as though it aspired to the seriousness of purpose of the taproom of a Prospect Avenue club.
One of the freshmen in my Dante seminar just came to me, agog. I find that agogness is in increasingly short supply these days, but this man was certifiably agog — and with good reason. He had just had his first encounter with, as he put it, "a real librarian." She — for this real librarian, perhaps unlike the ersatz ones he had been dealing with all this time, happened to be female — she had, rather like Beatrice herself, shown him a new heaven and a new earth. He was loaded with books, bibliographies, and JSTOR printouts. Though it pains me to admit it, he appeared to have learned more about his subject in that hour than he had in the previous thirty-six hours of heavy rap directed by a famous medievalist. Education no doubt can be suggested in the classroom; but education happens in the library. And in the Firestone Library, with its superb collections and even more superb librarians, it can happen with rare aplomb and gusto.
For people who are really interested in finding out about things and engaging ideas, the excitement of libraries is sensual and visceral as well as cerebral. Emerson, the greatest of all oped writers, and the most quotable of all the Victorian sages, says that "A man's library is a kind of harem". And if he dared to say it, I dare to quote it, even without the sort of prudent gender modification that might spare me a few emails. (Somehow "A person's library is a kind of singles' bar" just doesn't cut it.) Emerson is not what you would call a lubricious writer, but he knew what excitement was and where to find the action.
One of very few movies I remember from my childhood appeared right after the War: "It's a Wonderful Life" starring Jimmy Stewart (known locally in Princeton as St. James Stewart, '32) and Donna Reed, released in 1946. Many Hollywood plots are absurd, but this one is embarrassing to boot. In this movie Stewart plays a guy dissuaded from suicide by an apprentice angel who shows him—through a series of cinematic flashforwards — all the good he can achieve by continuing to exist. Apparently the chief good thing he can do is save Donna Reed the horrible fate of becoming a librarian by making her a suburban housewife. Donna Reed was quite a dish, and it was hard to make her look unattractive; but Capra thought he could do so by giving her a pair of glasses and putting her hair up in a bun — that apparently being, in the iconography of Tinsel Town, a sterile and joyless coiffure.
This seemed to me ridiculous even at the age of 11, since it was obvious to me then, and has become only more so as the years go by, that libraries are the sexiest places, and librarians the sexiest people, on earth. Furthermore I've always had a particular thing about librarians with buns, especially when the bun is complemented by a long yellow Eberhard Faber number two lead pencil worn behind the ear. Such librarians are a vanishing breed, to be sure, but to my delight I encountered one a couple of summers ago in a small town library in Vermont. While I, to my shame, was busy using the Internet to check my email — which incidentally consisted almost entirely of unsolicited offers to extend my credit line and my manhood — she was busy extending horizons, talking with quiet excitement to a couple of teenagers about books and ideas. John V. Fleming is the Louis W. Fairchild '24 professor of English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.