a paradise of learning

The library was, of course, one of the gems of the university. Since that innocent day, I have seen most of those colleges and known some of them intimately, wandered through their libraries and chapels and dining halls, lectured in their seminar rooms and taken tea in their parlors. I can safely say there is nothing to equal that first college library I saw, except perhaps Magdalen College Chapel, with its divine ornamentation. We first went into a reading room surrounded by stained glass like a tall terrarium, in which the students, rare captive plants, sat around tables whose antiquity was almost as great as that of the college itself. Strange lamps hung from the ceiling, and enormous globes from the era of Henry VIII stood on pedestals in the corners. Stephen Barley pointed out the many volumes of the original Oxford English Dictionary lining the shelves of one long wall; others were filled with atlases from a long sweep of centuries, others with ancient peerages and works of English history, still others with Latin and Greek textbooks from every era of the college’s existence. In the center of the room stood a giant encyclopedia on a carved baroque stand, and near the entrance to the next room rested a glass case in which I could see a stark-looking old book that Stephen told me was a Gutenberg Bible. Above us, a round skylight like the oculus of a Byzantine church admitted long tapers of sunlight. Flights of pigeons wheeled overhead. The dusty sunshine touched the faces of the students reading and turning pages at the tables, brushed their heavy jumpers and serious faces. It was a paradise of learning, and I prayed for eventual admission.

–The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova

A few days before Halloween, after falling asleep to Bram Stoker’s Dracula on mute and waking up to various scenes of Wynona and Keanu in various states of terror and dread, I decided to reread The Historian. I think nearly everyone in the free world read it when it came out—it was one of the lucky few “hyped” novels—and I was no exception: I read it and loved it, read it a few years later and loved it again, and now am deep in my third reread. Kostova blends the world of academia (dimly lit library carrels, ancient book collections, arcane scholarship) with the “real” world (the Cold War, Eastern Europe of the 30’s) and makes them both quite and utterly fascinating.

I prefer the library-world—vast dusty buildings full of documents that may or may not have been disturbed in the last five hundred years, treasures in plain sight just waiting for the discerning eye to notice their true worth. And isn’t that the goal of scholarship? To see something—to make a connection—to get what was being said. To communicate. It’s like time-travel.

I took the GRE on Wednesday. Honestly, it wasn’t so bad. The preceding stress was so much worse than the test—I kept getting stuck in a mental cycle of If I blow this, I’ll never have a career. I’ll be stuck doing something I hate and end up miserable and bitter. I won’t be able to continue in this field of study that I find so intriguing. I can’t blow this. If I blow this, I’ll… you get the idea. It was a little overly-dramatic, but still—arguably justified. It’s an important test.  And I did fine. I didn’t blow it. I forgot to breathe several times, I’d been so focused on the test that it took me fifteen minutes to remember what graduate programs I wanted my scores sent to, and I really should have arranged a ride home (driving after a major test should be like driving after a fourth cocktail: absolutely verboten) but I survived both the test and the drive home.

I know The Historian is fiction: logically the world of academia that it portrays is as fictional as the vampires who stalk the tweedy academics. But excerpts like this one—when the passion of a bibliophile kind of spills over from plot and just makes such a lovely moment of description—remind me why I do what I do and why I want to do what I want to do. It’s all about the paradise of learning, the dusty sunlight touching mountains of books and brushing serious, studious faces.

2 thoughts on “a paradise of learning”

  1. How did you do on your GRE? When I found out my GPA is high enough I do not have to take it for grad school admissions, I was thrilled. I was very worried about having to take it. I am still holding my breath and hoping nothing changes between now and their admissions process. I wish you luck!

  2. Stumbled on your blog–I think that you would like the book Stoner by John Williams. Well-worded descriptions of academic life are in abundance, there!

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