Listening to Paper

I have realized, in this second-to-last semester, that my time at Yale has been narrated by whispers in libraries. Hushed words, mostly, voices intersecting over laptop screens—the spoken record of crushes, confusion, and twenty-page papers started too close to their due date. They have elicited death stares in the Law School Library and felt like public property in the subterranean fishbowl that is Bass Library. In Sterling’s Starr reading room, the first cathedral I found at Yale, they’ve echoed like prayers. There is one library, though—the one library where I’ve never edited a friend’s essay or knocked over a coffee mug with over-caffeinated elbows—where these whispers make no noise.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where I’ve worked as a curatorial assistant in the Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL) since my sophomore year, hovers in the middle of Yale’s campus like a spaceship made of sugar cubes. Its architect, Gordon Bunshaft, composed the building of squares of white marble—one and one quarter inch thick, quarried from a translucent Vermont vein—that filter sunlight to protect 500,000 rare volumes and a few million manuscripts.

I have felt that I could live quite comfortably in the Beinecke if the rest of the world exploded. The facilities manager keeps all eight floors of reading rooms and illuminated bookstacks at a preservative 70 degrees F and 50% humidity. There are at least twelve different types of encyclopedias in the reference area and a coffee maker and a water cooler in the black marble lounge where bedraggled graduate students pause from poring over fragile folios. The area around the access desk fills with the sustaining hum of library whispers—the sounds of human interaction that revive an academic space.

Passing through the door to the carpeted hallway of curators’ offices is an act of isolation that I’ve never minded. The heavy fire door closes—hush. No one can listen to your thoughts. Room 26, the extra YCAL room that I’ve been allowed to appropriate, is tucked in the corner of the sunken granite courtyard. The room sits underground but has a view, through the wall of windows on the courtyard, to the white massif of the library stacks above. You look up at the world from those windows and feel very far away. On the few occasions when a plastic shopping bag or a candy wrapper has fluttered down to the ledge between the granite courtyard and the window wall, it has seemed like a sign of life from another planet.

***

It would feel sacrilegious to open Facebook on the old beige PC in Room 26. Paper continues to be precious. There’s a red trolley for shuttling grey boxes from the basement stacks, and piles of those boxes on three more long tables. The desk against the window is cluttered with the detritus of an archive: acid-free paper, clear plastic sleeves, a forest green pencil.

Somehow, though, it’s a messy space that feels meditatively blank. I think it’s the window wall, which lets in the clean, bright light of the courtyard’s granite. The room reflects the photographs and the letters that I draw carefully from the  boxes. It has given me a map of American literary geography. There’s the terrace at Sara and Gerald Murphy’s villa in Antibes (YCAL MSS 468), where Hemingway and Fitzgerald swam, and the dry, whitewashed spaces of Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexican home (YCAL MSS 263), where she painted skulls and read love letters from Alfred Stieglitz (YCAL MSS 85). Gertrude Stein’s Parisian salon was a transplanted New York living room with a cluster of Picassos on the wall (YCAL MSS 76), and Langston Hughes’ Harlem was fur-filled neon and glass, and a lot of lined notebook pages (JWJ MSS 26).

They all talked to each other, all these American writers and thinkers. They talked on typewriter paper, on postcards, on thick, powder-blue stationery in airmail envelopes. They talked in five-page meditations and quick thank-yous and postscripts scrawled hastily on the envelope flap. Their voices sometimes come to me in Room 26 with a rip or a coffee stain in the corner of the page. They have become something like sustenance for me, when I wonder why I spend so much time with words. They are like the friend’s whisper in Sterling, mid-essay, that reminds you that the world exists outside your laptop, and that its existence is why you’re writing.

I fall in love with writers I have not yet read, and will never meet, for the promises their written voices make me. It happened in Room 26 with Robert Penn Warren (YCAL MSS 51). I reconstructed him from his letters, mostly, though I cheated once and listened to a recording of his resonant voice reading from All the King’s Men. I imagined him in his office at Louisiana State University, drinking bourbon while editing an essay on Faulkner in a stream of dusty afternoon light. He traveled to Rome and wrote poems for his children and made croquet dates with Cleanth Brooks (YCAL MSS 30). He sent comments on the short stories of Katherine Anne Porter (YCAL MSS 153) and she responded in kind, writing him hundreds of pages in literary and personal correspondence before she died in 1980. On the back of one envelope, 1979: “the last letters ever written by Katharine Anne Porter?”

Sometimes, like that time, I have re-filed an envelope and have known I am reaching the end of a life. I have found myself staring at the intersection of courtyard, building, and sky above, looking out from a room spun by the voices of ghosts and wondering how I can keep those voices in my head when I leave the library.

Charlotte is from Bernardsville, New Jersey (host to the largest glitter factory in the world) but she feels most at home swimming off the rocks of Boston’s North Shore and reading old letters in the belly of the Beinecke. Send her an email at charlotte.parker@yale.edu.

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