How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read?
—V. Woolf, “How to Read a Book”
“To enter the building is to feel an overwhelming impulse to read.” So wrote Sarah Schweitzer about the Boston Athenaeum in a 2009 Boston.Com article. Indeed, pushing back the building’s red, leather-bound doors, one plunges into the world of reading like a sea-creature slipping into the ocean’s depths.
How is it that a building can transform us from scatter-brained urban land creatures subject to Boston’s many disparate calls into more focused beings equipped to swim through the world of learning? It may be that the library’s high ceilings and twelve floors expand our sense of possibility, inviting the mind to unbend. Certainly, the Athenaeum’s quiet aura of uninterrupted work offers a refuge from the jostling noise of the city’s streets. Fellow readers lost in concentration call us to our task. Art, sculpture, newspapers, journals, 750,000 books, maps–all await, encouraging inquiry. The interior’s opulence telegraphs the value of spending time with books, transporting us to a lost age when leisure allowed one to linger over fictions and treatises, sermons and histories, maps and art, with nothing more pressing awaiting than afternoon tea.
But the Athenaeum’s true luxury is something even more precious and more rare than comfort and splendor alone: it offers the order necessary for sustained reading.
We see this order in the carefully designed reading spaces enticing one to that concentrated state of mind so beneficial for reading. Solid walnut tables provide space for research materials. Desks tucked between bookshelves beckon. Upholstered chairs placed next to side tables allow readers to sit next to stacks of books and begin the task of browsing. The reference room displays recent journals side-by-side on long tables (shown below) carefully ordering the chaotic possibilities before us.
In short, the library has been designed for readers by readers to encourage us to leave the tyranny of the present by plunging into the otherworldly and timeless worlds contained in books. Seated at the Athenaeum, we can take down volumes and, in Woolf’s words, “make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.”
The Boston Athenaeum is a subscription library. To borrow books and use the upper floors requires a membership fee beyond the reach of many. But the first floor is open to the public six days a week, and the Athenaeum’s programs, including concerts, are open to the public free of charge. Its value as a public space is at least threefold: it is a research and membership library; an art museum and public gallery; and a public forum for lectures, readings, concerts, and other events.
Perhaps most of all, the Boston Athenaeum is a valuable icon reminding us of the civic value placed by a community on reading.
Less palatial, but no less essential, are the public spaces created by our public libraries. Situated by the apple orchards of upstate New York is the Peru Free Public Library (shown below), a lovely 1927 structure that blends the old and the new. It maintains its early twentieth-century elegance, even as it runs on solar energy.
Smaller in scale than the Boston Athenaeum (it holds about 14,000 items), it, too, beckons readers with its carefully arranged reading spaces. A fireside (below) often warms readers working at the reference room’s long tables during the shortening fall days and throughout the winter.
Carefully arranged reading spaces offer an opportunity to clear one’s head:
A children’s reading room is designed to invite young minds to the world of books:
The Peru Free Library’s many activities bind the community through art shows, pottery shows, book sales, children’s activities, public lectures, and other events. Like the Boston Athenaeum, the Peru Free Library is carefully and creatively managed.
Public reading spaces like the Boston Athenaeum and the Peru Free Library contribute immeasurably to their communities and to their readers, allowing them to expand their sense of who they are. By orchestrating spaces designed to slow us down long enough to stop skimming and sink into deep reading, they encourage a more studied approach to thought than is possible away from books. If we feel as Woolf did, that heaven is “one continuous unexhausted reading,” the Boston Athenaeum and the public libraries that share its commitment to encouraging reading make it a little easier to experience heaven on earth.