If you ask Google Images what a library is, you’ll get a very clear answer: books on shelves in a column-faced building.

Like Google, most of us think of the library as a storehouse for books. We can be forgiven for thinking so. Our word library comes from the Latin librarium, meaning bookcase. It’s the same for the Latin and Greek equivalents for library — bibliotheca and bibliothiki, respectively — which led to the word for library in most modern Indo-European languages. It’s also notable that the Latin word for book, liber, originally referred to the kind of bark that was used in book construction. All this is to say that, through and through, we have conceptualized the library in terms of physical objects. Bark, books, shelves, buildings.

This being the case, we tend to paint libraries as havens for book lovers. Take, for example, the novel Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, in which young Kafka Tamura runs away from home on his 15th birthday. Kafka is muscular and good-looking, but also introverted and bookish. As he says, “Ever since I was little I’ve loved to spend time in the reading rooms of libraries . . . Even on holidays that’s where you’d find me. I’d devour anything and everything — novels, biographies, histories, whatever was lying around. Once I’d gone through all the children’s books, I went on to the general stacks and books for adults.” Naturally, then, as a runaway, Kafka took refuge in a library. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that in Japanese, too, the word for library, toshokan, amounts to a building for books.)

If a library is just where a society keeps its books, then it’s easy to see why many people no longer perceive libraries as relevant. In the days of yore, a building full of books was a clear metaphor for collective knowledge. But today, knowledge is no longer bound to the printed page, and electronic and non-textual forms of media proliferate. Our cultural knowledge is no longer represented primarily as text within books. Moreover, with the internet, we can access our multimedia cultural knowledge from virtually anywhere.

It’s no secret that libraries are struggling. Funding is down in many public library systems across the country as the public no longer has much use for centralized storehouses of books. People say things like, “Why do we need libraries anymore when we’ve got Google?” Even the academic discipline dedicated to studying libraries seems to be backing away: A century ago, it was called library science; after World War II, it became better known as library and information science; over the past few decades, it’s been sloughing the L word (and often picking up words like computer and data). At my institution, for instance, the School of Library and Information Science was renamed to the College of Information Studies in 1985 — and today it’s the College of Computing and Informatics. Today, it houses a much wider range of degree programs than in previous decades, threatening to obfuscate the fact that the master’s of library and information science program is still one of the college’s core offerings.

But libraries are still important, and that’s because they are not fundamentally storehouses for books — despite the name and our longstanding cultural assumptions. We can begin to see this in the example of Kafka on the Shore, if we look beyond the surface. It’s not just that Kafka wound up in the library because he liked books. He wound up in the library because he had no other home, and the library provided a free, safe space. Indeed, over the course of the book, Kafka comes to know the proprietors of the library, and he ends up living there in a spare room. A library is not just a refuge for the intellect, but for the whole person.

As a culture, we seem reluctant to admit the breadth and depth of what libraries offer. For instance, last year I attended the play Spine, by Clare Brennan, which seeks to expose the unseen value of libraries. Following the show was a question-and-answer session with constituents from the theater company and the public library system. At one point in the conversation, a man in the audience scoffed at the idea that the library should provide bathrooms for homeless people. Libraries are about books!

We have undervalued the library all this time, I think, in part because we have overvalued the written word. Since our Judeo-Christian roots, we have ascribed mythic power to books. God Himself, it is said, is the Torah. And though popular culture has lost some of this mystical veneer since the Enlightenment, the fetishization of books has not abated: In the modern scientific tradition, we have come to consider knowledge to be only that which is communicable via text. But that is a terribly impoverished view of what human knowing can be.

Part of the reason for this is the way we conceptualize reading. We tend to think of books as things that hold information, and we think that when you read, the information jumps into your brain. If that were really how it worked, how could two people read the same text and get different information from it? It happens all the time, both in science and in life. Clearly there’s more to knowing than just getting information. As Emilio says in the novel The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, reflecting on a failed mission to space, “We had all the information, really. It was all there. We just didn’t understand.”

In the age of print we have been held sway to what books can do and forgotten what they cannot do. To the extent that information from texts equates to knowledge, it is only knowledge-that, not knowledge-how or knowledge-of-what-it-is-like. For information to unfold as these ways of knowing, to lead to understanding, we must think of information as a process rather than a thing, and certainly not a process that is bound up in any particular object.

In Kafka on the Shore, there are many scenes where we find Kafka reading. As we experience reading along with Kafka, it is clearly not a simple matter of information transfer. Kafka’s reading material — The Arabian Nights is a favorite — stirs up meanings from Kafka’s past and future, and through reading he comes to better understand his present. Reading, then, is a process of transformation of a person with a past, present, and future through an experiential engagement with a book which also has a past, present, and future.

But even allowing for this evocative power of text, Kafka learns that the written word has its limitations. Towards the end of the novel, Kafka finds himself slipping back and forth between the world of literacy and the world of whole being. In trying to describe his experience, Kafka concludes: “Neither one of us can put it into words. Putting it into words will destroy any meaning . . . Words have no life in them.” We all know this, intuitively: Not everything can be put into words. But at the same time, as every poet knows, words can express more than they seem to say.

What is fundamental about the library is not that it holds objects, or even the nature of those objects, but rather how those objects are used. And though books are the first objects that come to mind, libraries hold far more than just books. To be sure, libraries also have objects like CDs, DVDs, magazines, newspapers, maps, artwork, electronic databases, computers, and printers. But they also offer things we’re less quick to identify as objects: space, relationships, trust, understanding, and opportunities. We must recognize that libraries speak to the whole person, not just the intellect.

When Kafka realizes this, the texture of the library changes for him. “The most important thing about life here,” a young woman tells him, “is that people let themselves be absorbed into things. As long as you do that, there won’t be any problems . . . It’s like when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.”

What is a library? In the 21st century, more than ever, a library is a place that helps us realize that we are all part of each other. •

All images created by Shannon Sands.

Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is an astute observation, a reflection, and commentary that contemplates our contemporary urban islands. The film’s most consistent motif is inversion, a collapsing of the boundaries between the internal and the external, a conflation of self and society featuring a kinetic and nearly constant obsession with the surface vs. substance quandary that has confounded philosophers, artists, and poets for millennia. As I mused in the afterglow of the film, I found myself wondering why, in his recent transition away from the historical and towards the contemporary, Malick selected Los Angeles as his cosmopolis of choice. It took some thinking, but I realized that the last picture to capture L.A. and inscribe it this perfectly was released in 1969, and it wasn’t a film, it wasn’t a novel, it wasn’t an essay: it was an album, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds.

More… “Terrence and Joni Redeem L.A.”

James Forman Jr. is an academic who studies the criminal justice system, which is not unusual for a former clerk to a Supreme Court justice. But Forman also worked for years as a public defender in Washington, D. C. This gives him profound first-hand experience of the system that is less common among legal scholars. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Forman calls on both his experiences and the latest scholarship to tell a story that complicates our understanding of mass incarceration in the United States. While in Philadelphia earlier this month for a reading, Forman came by the offices of The Smart Set to discuss his book. A passionate critic of the system, despite the often depressing tale he tells, Forman comes across as an optimist who believes, even in the face of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that we can continue with widespread criminal justice reform.

More… “Forman for Reform”

At the end of the 18th century, a Frenchman by the name of Xavier de Maistre had to undergo house arrest for dueling. He made the best of it and traveled about his room. He was inspired by the paintings, the books on the shelf, his servant, his dog, his lover. And he wrote a book about it. Voyage Around My Room is a stroll across a room where in fact nothing really happens. Nevertheless, he developed a real taste for it. Among the praise of his “voyage” was the following (for the infirm, in this case): “They need not fear the inclemency of the elements or the seasons. As for the faint of heart, they will be safe from bandits, and need not fear encountering any precipices or holes in the road. Thousands of people who, before me, had never dared to travel, and others who had been unable, and still others who had never dreamed of it, will now, after my example, undertake to do so.”

More… “Between Everywhere and Nowhere”

This month marks the 40th anniversary of a month of shows by the Grateful Dead that are regarded with awe by their legions of fans. At the core is the night of May 8, 1977, when the band played Cornell University’s Barton Hall and delivered what has long been considered their greatest show. In 2011, the Library of Congress added the Cornell show to the National Recording Registry even though it hadn’t been officially released.

This being the Dead, all the May 1977 shows have been circulating in various unofficial ways for decades. There was even an official box set of some May 1977 shows. But, until now, the Cornell show itself had never seen an official release. A limited-edition box set was put out this month, including a recording of the show along with three others previously unreleased. What is revealed should surprise no one at this point: the Cornell show was nothing special. It was in fact a typical night for the band in this period: sounding no different from other shows, comprising a set list of songs that were the usual suspects from that tour. Yet, this is high praise, because in May 1977, no band was delivering anything like what the Dead were putting on stage. More… “The Rocking Dead”

Until we learn what sentences can do, we tend to underrate them. We treat sentences as if they were floors, a kind of planking, something we have to walk on in order to get to the next room. We are oblivious to the reality, which is that the planking is alive and walking all over it creates a kind of hurt. Our steps harm the delicate surface and whatever lies beneath it — mystery, beauty, a soul.

Even as children, we instantly recognize a line of poetry that carries music. In time we learn that sentences, too, carry music. Some writers may go overboard and try to turn each sentence into a line of poetry, but that does a disservice to the sentence, which has its own qualities and purposes. Nobody expects a young or new writer to master all these matters at once. That’s why we call the process of writing it writing and not written. Writing takes time. It also takes us, as I’ve said before, out of time, which is a great and joyous experience.

More… “What You Make, Make to Last”

Aside from getting intense about guitar solos, in my part of American culture it’s not manly to be too precise about beauty or goodness. There’s something peripheral and tiresome about a person who rattles on about all the ethical and aesthetic entanglements of the world — that’s what a bridezilla does, or a momzilla, or a punchline vegan. In Philip Roth’s books, not only is it acceptable for a person to be authoritative and also read a lot of fiction and care about what people are wearing, it’s the reason. A Roth character thinks everyone should fall in line behind him when he wants to talk to his friends about books and fight against oppression that’s the lifeblood of — more than democracy — the whole human experience. So I’ve been reading a lot of Philip Roth lately.

More… “Complaint Department”

2006. Just a bit more than ten years ago. Two mega blockbusters were released in India, and three stars were born into the industry called Bollywood. One was a 21-year-old called Deepika Padukone. The other two were star kids, destined to be in the industry; Sonam Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor. For those of you who are not familiar with Bollywood, Sonam Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor are of Bollywood pedigree. Born to stars, they chose to make a life for themselves in the same space as their parents and — in Ranbir Kapoor’s case — grandparents and great-grandparents too. They did it quite successfully, too, might I add.

More… “A Star is Made”

Undoubtedly, the skills you learn as a child never leave you. When I quit my day job to focus on writing, my biggest concern was how I was going to pay my bills. My boyfriend and I had just moved into two rooms in a large house in D.C. and were sharing living expenses. Nevertheless, by the end of our first month as new renters, we were already coming up short. Desperate to find the last $100 he needed to meet our $800 rent, my boyfriend decided to go online and try to sell his winter coat. It sold immediately . . . for $100. We made the rent.

Seeing the potential of online vending, we immediately began selling anything we could get our hands on. I saw an escape route from the daily grind of going to a job of inputting data and I took it. Online vending became my “new hustle.” We opened an online store selling gently used clothing. Immediately, I had become an entrepreneur. Since then, my goal each month has been to sell enough clothing online to pay my bills and therefore afford myself the time to write. My new hustle, however, was not really all that new to me. In fact, when I thought about it, I realized that it was actually the culmination of the person I had started to become between the ages of nine and ten. More… “The Hustle”

Growing up in suburban New Jersey during the 1960s, I always thought of Leonard Bernstein as a kind of distant cousin. All Jewish families who had emigrated from Eastern Europe had people evocative of Bernstein — charismatic, larger-than-life talents who seemed to skirt danger.

It’s not entirely clear whether Lenny, as his friends called him (though his grandmother had insisted on calling him Louis, his given name) was a child prodigy, only that he loved music from an early age and was branded a genius when he arrived at Harvard. His genius showed most dramatically in his energy and inventiveness — a restlessness that some saw as a tragic flaw. More… “My Cousin Lenny”