Marlene Hauser

Oxford library

Quiet Cauldron of the Mind

Someone recently asked if libraries were still a “thing.” For me, yes!  Of course there is the amazing digital interface, accessible from anywhere on the planet, which has increased library usage exponentially, and makes me marvel when I’m electronically thumbing through hundred-year-old illustrations or listening to an audio, albeit a robotic one, of a journal penned even further back in time. But for me the real lure of libraries is that I still thrive on the in-person, on-the-ground, quiet they offer me to read, to think, to imagine creatively.

When I go to read, I make my way to the Bodleian Library, weaving my way through the streets of Oxford, past the old Divinity School, and through a gaggle of tourists with entrance tickets in hand. I sign in without (usually) the gatekeeper so much as looking up. Making my way up a wide, worn wooden staircase to “my place,” I traverse soundlessly, as my fellow readers also do. It is then that something comes over me, not unlike the perfume of incense that as a child once drew me into the pageantry of the Catholic mass.

Of course, it is not a piney frankincense or an earthy myrrh that gets my attention, but the smell of books, old and new, paper, glue, wooden shelves, desks and chairs, all sun-warmed through sky-high, even stained-glass, windowpanes, that carries me on to my place, where I return to the book, to the page, where I left off previously. My current novel-in-progress, The Fair Incognito, needed a rethink. Finding myself in what I thought of as a compositional cul-de-sac, I had to go back and read and reread the research again. Ho-hum. 

In the last two months I have revisited several secondary sources, and in the calm of my slow and methodical reading, I have found that I am in fact, contrary to my original panic attack, quite on track. I had only been ahead of myself, writing too fast, perhaps, and needed to sink deeper into the story of my warm and wonderful characters. When I lean back in my chair—there are a few ergonomic ones—I am happy. It is the smell of wood, sun, books and the odd rustle of some other reader that greets me. A  soft, unspoken victory. Yes, carry on.

Perfect, I think, and I crack on with a diary from 1820, slipping into the boots of my critical secondary character. Not a pin drops as I make my way in search of feathered things, and the humbling experience of bartering passage on a flatboat down the Mississippi River, while more expensive technology steams by with names like Independence and Velocipede. I imagine my primary character, left behind with her young children to feed, and then move easily back and forth from husband to wife, one smelling bougainvillea and the other the almshouse and extreme poverty.

There is nothing to disturb the peace, just the ultimate wood-scented, page-scented miracle of shared imagination through the ages. I carry on reading until finally a breeze randomly wafts over my desk and tower bells from beyond the library signal noon. As easily as that, I make my way back out of the Upper Reading Room, two sharp turns, out of American Literature, out of English, past Self-Collect and History, down wooden stairs and back out onto Broad Street, 2023 and home.

So, libraries? For me, libraries are the quiet cauldron of the mind, the likes of which can be found nowhere else. Sometimes, when I take a break, rest, stretch, study the horizon, look up and down the book-lined walls, I smile. How did I end up in the American Literature section with Willa Cather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ezra Pound, Mark Twain or Eudora Welty looking down? In truth, there is just an empty desk, a dusting of sunlight, voluminous quiet and no one else around. I could be anywhere.

While I celebrate the luminosity that lights up my iPhone, MacBook Air, Sony flatscreen TV and of course the digitization of the library, it is the face-to-face, in-person, bricks-and-mortar quiet library that I like to think is irreplaceable in the order of things imaginative. 

So, wishing you an October full of quiet, possibly a library, a place to think originally.