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A Fateful and Lonesome Journey to the Dark Heart of the American Library

After working with the students on developing personally relevant topics, you’ll have helped them sharpen those topics into specific areas of research. Then, on a cold day sometime in early October, you’ll all shuffle over to the campus library.

You will have written, “WE ARE IN THE LIBRARY TODAY” in enormous block letters on the board, but the two students who come late won’t read it, initiating a chain reaction involving the department secretary looking up the outdated copy of your syllabus on file in the office; a feverish exegesis of your original assignment sequence that has already been amended six times in class; and a multitude of calls to you which will go unanswered because your phone is off.

Meanwhile, the librarian’s assistant will be taking your students through an online guided tour of available resources for undergraduate research papers as slowly as humanly possible. Three students will have opened Facebook on the library terminals. One will be playing a bowling app on her iPad. It is important, at this point, to resist sudden irrational sadness.

The walking tour will then ensue. It will consist of the reference section, some of the book stacks, and the periodical room in the basement. The students will peer at the 1970s sci-fi microfilm readers. They’ll show a slight tourist curiosity toward the untouched literary journals laid out in immaculate columns on the shelves. Someone at the back of the group will whisper, “This is so intimidating.”

Class will be nearly over at that point. Everyone will shuffle back to the front desk. You will elaborately thank the librarian’s assistant who will smile and wave at the class as if he’d just demonstrated how to teach algebra to grizzly bears. Then the two late students will arrive with contemptuous expressions, but everyone will ignore them.

You’ll take a moment to talk about the value of working with physical books and the weird serendipity that comes from personally browsing the stacks. You’ll explain how it can sometimes result in discovering the perfect text, or an author of whom you were not previously aware, or a useful book that had been misshelved or miscatalogued. You’ll describe this experience as wonderful and mysterious—because it is, but maybe only to you.

Your students will be checking their watches, getting combos on Pro Bowler, and will often seem to be staring through your physical form at the gulf of infinity. But the librarian’s assistant will be listening intently as you describe this esoteric process. You are, he’ll decide, somewhat smarter than you look.

You’ll finish by talking about what the students should be doing before the next class meeting. A few of them will make sure you notice that they’re writing it all down. Everyone will be extremely tired. Of the 15 who shuffled in, you will count 11 shuffling out.

What happened to the other 4? Don’t ask.

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

“I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.”

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.”

— Madeleine Chapsal

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection. King Solomon’s ring bore the inscription, ‘All will pass’; by contrast, I want to draw attention to how time in its moral implication is in fact turned back. Time can vanish without trace in our material world for it is a subjective, spiritual category. The time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

— Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time