Friday, March 8, 2024

A Eulogy for the Alderman Stacks

I am a terrible alumnus.  This, I will freely admit. 

While my education at the University of Virginia profoundly enriched and set direction for my life, and I still maintain connection with the friends I made there, the culture of the school never jibed with me.

It's a culture that I find expressed every single time I receive my alumni magazine.  The alumni magazine that my William and Mary alumna wife regularly reads cover to cover is filled with long, substantive articles about the research of professors and unusual, creative work by W&M graduates.  

That's not what I get.  The slight, slick magazine that arrives for me is almost invariably a paean to wealth, privilege, and material success.  It's a magazine for strivers, stuffed full of advertising for Charlottesville area estates, most of which are priced either in the high seven digits or without a pricetag.  Because if you have to ask, eh?  

Most of the rest of it revolves around fundraising, which seems absurd for an institution that rests upon a thirteen point six billion dollar endowment hoard.  My wife holds it up as evidence that W&M is an institution more serious about its educational mission, and I have to admit she has a point.

I usually just recycle it.

But the magazine I just received was different.  On the cover, an image of the new humanities library, the former Alderman Stacks.  I spent a great deal of time in the Stacks, and my memory of them is strong.  Like so many things, it has been recently remade, the old facility gutted and "reimagined."  That reimagining was celebrated in a short article, filled with pictures of the new, light-filled spaces.  It began with this opening description of the old stacks:

"There was always that distinct experience when you headed to the back of Alderman Library.  You'd cross the connecting bridge, never looking down the barren window wells on either side, and confront cold steel--an old elevator beside the metal chute they called a staircase.  The ceilings lowered to half height.  The walls closed in.  Windows disappeared.  Time stopped.  Your internal compass lost its polarity.  You had descended into the dark night of the Stacks.  Retrace those steps today and it's like a morning-sun realization that it had all been a bad dream."

A "bad dream?"  Really?

I had the experience of entering those Stacks countless times, but my encounter with that space was completely different.

That bridge was liminal, a place of crossing over, of transition between the outside world and the Stacks.  Because the Stacks were dreamlike.  They felt like a different world, whose internal logics and peculiarities were like those that fill our time in the Land of Nod.

The Stacks were a little close and crepuscular, the low ceilings and tight, functional staircases creating a labyrinthine warren whose twilight aesthetics spoke quietly of deep reflection and intimate focus.  The study carrels were more than a little monastic.  It felt old, even back in the late '80s.  

But "old" isn't a pejorative.  It felt rooted, a part of the written history whose memories filled the volume within.  

It was a place created for books, defined by books, and seemingly comprised entirely of books.  Words on paper hemmed you in, around, below, and above.  The scent of ancient paper filled the air with a rich sweet must.  It felt peculiarly organic, a sanctum of deep soft quiet and distance from the world, separate from the rush and hum of life.  

It was the sort of place that felt worth exploring. It was a little magical, the sort of place where one wouldn't be entirely surprised to encounter Galdalf the Grey seeking a particularly obscure scroll.  It was a place where you could focus, where you could be undistracted, where you could lose yourself in words.  It was not a place of this scattered, Adderall age.

That soft magic is now lost, washed away from the University of the humanities, like the study of literature, like the a space that dazzles.