Love among book stacks

July 21, 2000

With the term over, Harvey Kaye rediscovers the joy of an empty library in summer and the time for exploration

Driving into campus on the Monday following graduation, I noticed the flowers were in bloom. Proceeding to the parking lot, I easily found a prime space. Indeed, the weather was so nice that I briefly entertained the idea of parking farther out in order to get extra exercise.

Entering the social sciences building, I encountered not a single student. Arriving at our usually bustling departmental suite I found a few colleagues. I opened my office door, flipped on my computer and checked for phone messages and email. After a little while, I decided to head over to the library to pick up a few things.

I felt as if I was heading out to play. I had sensed relief when I delivered my final grades to the registrar's office the week before. But heading over to the library I now felt truly liberated. I thought about how beautiful the campus looked. The grass was green. The trees had all their leaves. The breeze smelled and sounded so fresh. Birds and squirrels abounded. I recalled a now-retired colleague's not totally facetious observation, made on a day just like this, that universities would be really great if we could get rid of the students. It made me feel guilty.

Do not get me wrong. I love students. Some of my best friends are students. I was one myself - and, in some ways, still am. Moreover, I entered the profession to teach. I still get my greatest intellectual thrills and most of my good ideas from doing so. In fact, I think the past semester was among my best.

The students in the introductory course seemed more engaging in discussion sections. Many even seemed to appreciate my Talmudic pedagogical approach. And my senior seminar students gave me more pleasure than any group of students ever. They were smart, critical and enthusiastic. It may sound bizarre, but they honoured me later by proving they could operate well without me.

Nevertheless, it felt good to have the semester ended. I could now focus on my new project. Having just published a "young adult" biography, Thomas Paine (Oxford University Press), I realised that I was not ready to bid Paine farewell. I imagined a new book for adults. Titled The Sun Never Shined on a Cause of Greater Worth: Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, it would offer a biography of Paine, a survey of how Americans have remembered him over the past 200 years, and what Paine himself might say to Americans today. I was eager to get to work.

Inside the library, I did run into students. Several were starting summer library jobs; others were finishing papers they still owed. But the building was comparatively empty. It was as if the bookshelves were my private library.

During the academic year, I regularly go to the library to keep up with the journals or to secure an urgently needed title. But in the course of nine months I forget the thrill - yes, the thrill - of spending time in the stacks. It is not simply the pleasure of finding a needed work and perusing it without having to get to class or, worse, a meeting. It is the delight of coming across the unexpected, the works that stand alongside the desired volume, which often turn out to be even more valuable.

The staff are always helpful, but - perhaps feeling lonely without students around - they seemed all the more friendly and ready to advise on the latest search tools available at one of the many now-vacant computer terminals.

That first day back in the stacks, I lost track of time as I followed leads on Paine's historical memory (and its suppression). I trekked through religion, US history, political theory, literary history, journalism, presidential papers and engineering, then back through all of them second and third times.

I established a base at a secluded desk, but often found myself collapsing into a sofa near a big window with a bunch of books in hand. Before I knew it, the short trip had become an all-day excursion. Needing to get home, I stacked the books I had yet to explore on the desk and left a note saying "please do not remove".

As I headed out, a student sitting at the library's welcome desk, said:

"Professor Kaye, you don't know me, but I have your class in the fall and I'm really looking forward to it."

"Great," I replied, and, pointing to the book open on the desk before him, I asked: "Are you reading ahead for it?" "Oh no," he retorted, "this is my free time", lifting up the volume to reveal a Stephen King novel. How right he was, I thought. It is our free time.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, US.

Agony Aunt, page 32

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