The ceiling of the Library of Congress is embossed with aluminum. Aluminum, the tour guide tells us, was a precious metal. Once.
On the top there is a torch. Torches are prominently featured. As are: Minerva, owls, and women showing or unshowing one or both of their breasts, it varies a great deal. Minerva has a sword.
The first Library was burned. The second Library burned. Now, rather than much of a library for Congress, it is a book fetish place on the mall. For the second time, I got a reader card. I would call it a library card. Proof of book fetish, merely, I wasn’t going to read anything there. Libraries, in fact, I love and fear, because I don’t check out books anymore unless I have an in. I can’t be trusted with library books. I have dug myself holes. The government employees at the get-your-card office are deeply unimpressed with your desire for a card, just ignore the warnings that this is NOT A SOUVENIR.
What people do is create libraries, and then those libraries are burned or dispersed. Three-quarters of my library has languished in a Lenexa, Kansas storage unit for two years, twenty-four months. I never thought I could live without it.
The Library was the first building in Washington, DC to be completely electrified, and people used to go there to see the sight. They also installed gas. Once the electricity fad passed, they could crank up the gas lights like regular people.
Thomas Jefferson’s books, the ones that survived the second fire, are preserved in a swoop of an almost circle, glass on both sides, so you can see both sides, the spines are on the inside, labeled by subject, and the outside is all their pages, some of them dizzyingly marbled, blue and cream or burgundy and cream.
Aluminum was, in the beginning, so precious that royalty had one set of aluminum fork, knife and spoon for the honored guest, and the others had to use gold.
Were books your company? When weren’t they? When have you felt lonely, away from your book, and worse when you had to stop and realized how one-sided your relationship had been with the book. Hadn’t it been? When did you know the complete hollowness of not having any book you wanted badly to reenter? Did the books you read pay any attention to you? Did they respond at all? Did they light up?
Jefferson sold his library to Congress. He thought they could use them, sure, but also he needed the money.
The last day of school, I ended up sitting and chatting a long time with a student. He told me he wished his dad would teach him how to pray. I told him if he didn’t end up a neurologist, he could still work in medicine. He might change his mind, and that would be okay. I told him to read Atul Gawande. Do you know anyone who’s gone to medical school? No. I told him to go to the Natural History Museum, he had never been there, I told him it was free, really, just give them a dollar, they let you in. Go see the dinosaurs. Maybe I will, today, Ms Schurman, maybe I will.