I went to a haiku poetry reading yesterday by the winners of a city-wide haiku contest for students through middle school. One of my students won a third place and two others received honorable mentions. The reading was held at the Harold Washington Library, an amazing building, one of my favorite pieces of Chicago architecture (design by Thomas Beeby from Hammond, Beeby & Babka, Inc). The building’s flamboyance and exuberance playfully references and animates other key pieces of architecture in the city.
The students were told to be at the library at 9:00 for a sound check. I got there at 9:00 as well finding out that the reading would not begin until 10:00.
And so I wandered the building and did what I haven’t done in a very long time—spent an hour browsing– walking the aisles, just looking at books. Enticed by a title or a visual, I would pull a book off the shelf and peruse it. (Yes, you sometimes can tell a book by its cover.) The strolling through books was actually blissful, somehow centering. I felt myself slow down. My brain emptied and I was open to any discovery. The hour, of course, went by way too quickly, and I had to hurry to the small theater for the haiku readings. I had only wandered part of one floor. There were at least five more floors to explore, but the browsing had helped to still my mind and I was ready to listen.
These days, my browsing usually takes place on the internet. Sites like Goodreads, even Amazon, are a way I peruse books. But that’s not real browsing. I am sad for many of the young people today who don’t know what real browsing is, the visceral kind, where you touch and smell books. Where you are not really looking for anything in particular, just something that intrigues you, pulls you in, something that promises adventure, or edginess, or new experience, or wholehearted stillness. Not for an assignment, not for research, nothing required. When I was young I remember those glorious afternoons spent in our neighborhood library, sitting on a big wooden bench, with books all around me lit by light coming through large gothic windows.
The notion of borrowing books is freeing as well. You are willing to take more risks as opposed to spending money to own books that you are not completely sure you want to keep. But borrowing and browsing implies that for whatever you discover, you will have the time to read and luxuriate inside the discovery. Perhaps that is the piece that is the most illusive. Where did that “down time” disappear? Or perhaps the better question is why have I let that kind of time evaporate from my daily life?
I have made a promise to visit this downtown library more often. Actually I have an obligation to do so. I have to return my books.