Harvard Libraries and Reading

There was a lot of ground covered in my latest reading of Ari Goldman’s The Search for God at Harvard: Ari’s search for a library at Harvard where he felt comfortable studying; Ari’s happiness that being a student gave him a chance to read more books than he could when he was a reporter, caught up in the hustle and bustle of his responsibilities; how writing a paper for a class was different from writing a news story (he got a “B” on a paper); how he felt bad when he was violating Shabbat, not because he feared divine retribution, but because keeping the Sabbath allowed him to be himself; how he was not allowed to help a tired woman carry her groceries on the Sabbath, and he felt bad on account of that; how a Catholic church in the 1980’s rejected a request by a man dying of AIDS and his wife to renew their vows at the church, and the arch-conservative John J. O’Connor stepped in, reversed that decision, and attended the wedding; Goldman’s interview with the controversial John Shelby Spong; and how attending a synagogue provided male Orthodox Jews with a conversation-starter for women attending the synagogue, namely, “Shabbat Shalom, what did you think of the sermon?”

What I’ll comment on in this post will be where I mostly studied when I was at Harvard, and also the question of whether or not being a student gave me more time to read for pleasure.

I started out studying at the Divinity School library.  The thing is, before it got refurbished, it was not particularly the most comfortable place to study, for it largely had desks with hard chairs (but there were a few couches).  Goldman mentions the distraction of the congenial people there, but I tended to avoid the library because it reminded me of how I did not fit in with people: I preferred a place where I did not know as many people, rather than to be at the Div School, where I was reminded that I did not fit in.  (I’m trying to get over this avoidant personality trait.)  I tried Widener, but Widener had a lot of desks with hard chairs, and I found the study carrels where the books were to be dark, lonely, and depressing.  I studied at Lamont for a while.  The big room on the first floor had comfortable chairs, but there were a lot of people there, so it was distracting.  Like Ari, I sometimes studied at the Farnsworth library at Lamont, and it was a nice place of solitude, but it was rather dark, and the leather chairs were not always the most comfortable for me.  I often went to the law school library, but the place that had the comfortable chairs had a lot of people circulating around.

And then I found Hilles, which Ari does not mention.  I learned of Hilles when I was looking for a video, and the online catalog said that it was at Hilles.  I used to enjoy watching movies at DePauw University, and I wondered if Hilles, too, had a place where I could watch movies.  And it did: it had a video collection, and also a room with televisions.  Moreover, even though it was a rather big library and had lots of books on a variety of subjects (and I could often find what I needed there for papers), not many people were there.  And there was a nice comfortable sofa, where I could lay down and do my reading.  Plus, during my second and third years as a student at Harvard Divinity School, Hilles was the closest library to where I lived.  I enjoyed taking walks at Hilles when hardly anybody was there, as I prayed and looked at books.  But I can’t say that I was entirely isolated socially, for there were a few Div School students who also hanged out there, either to study, or because they worked there for their work-study, or both.  So I got to have some small-talk with other students, but I found Hilles to be calmer on my nerves than the other libraries at Harvard.

And I wonder if the layout of Hilles had something to do with it being calmer on my nerves.  I said that it was a big library, and it was, somewhat.  But the ceiling was rather low on each floor.  And Hilles struck me and others as a rather Spartan place, which was why others I knew thought that it was a depressing place to study (someone told me that it needed new carpeting), whereas I liked it.  At other libraries, the ceiling was usually really high, which intimidated me, and there was also a lot of color at them (i.e., a lot of blue at the law school).  One characteristic that I’ve heard that people with Asperger’s have is that they like monochromatic settings.  I’m not sure if that is universally true, but that may be another reason why I enjoyed studying at Hilles: it was simple and Spartan.

Now for my question about reading: Did I have more opportunities to read for pleasure as a student?  Goldman on page 184 says: “My year at Harvard was a little like fulfilling a legion of New York intellectual fantasies.  It was like reading The New York Review of Books and knowing that you would have time to read each new book reviewed.”

I found my time at DePauw University and at Harvard to be a lot like that, and the reason was that, when researching for papers, I had an opportunity to read quite a few books.  At Harvard, I decided to do a paper on Paul Tillich for a class, and so I got to read Tillich’s huge systematic theology, which my Mom gave me.  I was thinking about writing a paper on Karl Barth’s view on revelation, and so I read the volumes of his Church Dogmatics about the Bible as the Word of God.  I was taking a class on Jonathan Edwards, and so I read Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, and Religious Affections in researching for my paper.  I considered that to be reading for pleasure: it was the academic passion that I used to have, the desire to dive into books that I wanted to read but ordinarily did not have the time or the discipline to read.

At Jewish Theological Seminary, I somewhat got away from that, and the same was true at Hebrew Union College.  Why?  I still did reading to research for papers, but it was usually articles, or the pieces of the books that I needed rather than the entire books.  Plus, I was taking so many language classes that took up a lot of my time (though, as I think back to my Harvard days, I wonder how I found the time to plow through all of those books that I read, while taking a full course-load of classes and also working at my work-study job).  But I did get that old feeling of excitement when a professor of mine at Hebrew Union College gave me a list of books to read for my comp on the Hebrew Bible.  And, as I prepared for my comps, I availed myself of the opportunity to read other books that I long wanted to read, but did not have the time to read, such as Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena.

Nowadays, I read a lot.  I’d say that blogging has encouraged me to read, the same way that writing papers and preparing for comps were an impetus for me to read books in the past, for I can blog about what I read, and that can spice up my reading, as I look for interesting things to blog about.  But there are times when I prefer simply to enjoy the book, without offering my two-cents worth on it.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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