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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.

Tim Gorichanaz is a PhD candidate in information studies at Drexel. His research explores the historical and philosophical aspects of libraries and information technology. His work appears in Straight Forward, Sinkhole and numerous academic journals. He enjoys running long distances and practicing classical guitar.
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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”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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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”

Catherine Nichols lives in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, Open Letters Monthly, and Seattle Review of Books. Find her on Twitter @clnichols6.
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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”

Anvita Sudarshan is a writer and filmmaker living in Mumbai. She started her career in writing by co-founding and editing a children’s magazine named Geo-Junior and then extensively for another popular children’s magazine in India named Tinkle. She spent her early twenties modeling, winning pageants (including Miss India Worldwide) ,the experiences of which culminated into a recent book, Beauty Queen, which being published by Amaryllis, is likely to hit the stands by Autumn 2017. As a filmmaker, she has written a number of feature scripts and has made films for both analogue and digital fora. She has also initiated a series of filmmaking workshops in India for young people as a way of visually expressing thoughts that can be woven into cinematic stories. She is now working on screenplays and a novel that portray the fortitude of women under challenging life circumstances. She also regularly writes for a YouTube Channel called Slang.
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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”

Kesia Alexandra is a freelance creative writer from Washington, DC. She can be found on Twitter @kesialexandra and Instagram @kesia_alexandra.
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Every literary season deserves at least one unexpected pleasure. For the fall of 2016, this pleasure appeared with the discovery and publication of a long-lost novel by Claude McKay. Known as the “rebel sojourner” of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay enjoys more than his fair share of supporters and detractors. His sense of rebellion persisted throughout his unsettled life, as compulsive and widespread as his travels. The newly discovered novel, with the suitably prickly title of Amiable With Big Teeth, won’t likely alter or settle McKay’s reputation conclusively, but it will complicate it, and in a good sense. Most striking, perhaps, is that the book has a deft plot, rather unlike his earlier narratives (recall that Banjo is subtitled A Story Without a Plot). Some issues and concerns recur from the previous fictions, but they often appear to be over-shadowed by the political questions of race and color. Amiable certainly continues in that vein, but adds to it a smoother sense of conflict and development, complete with revelatory surprises and a range of tonal situations, from romantic innocence to farce to grim burlesque. More… “Amiable with Big Teeth”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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Scholars have been laboring for more than a century to transform Emily Dickinson’s faint pencil jottings on envelopes, letters, and sewn sheets into accurate and readable editions of some or all of her 1,800 poems. Recently, there has been a counter movement to return Dickinson’s verse to something like the textual fluidity of its original state, which in practice is rather like returning nonspecialists to the state of dazed incomprehension experienced by the small circle of her earliest readers. The online Emily Dickinson Archive, which reproduces the manuscripts with all their wayward calligraphy and unresolved word choices, is a necessary and laudable enterprise, but the last thing it does is make her poetry more accessible. You thought it was hard reading Emily Dickinson before? It just got harder.

More… “Reading Emily Dickinson”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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Ask someone who doesn’t normally listen to classical music to name a work from the genre, and it’s a reasonable bet they’ll cite Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. They’re apt to even hum a few bars of the “Ode to Joy” passage — a veritable vocal wellspring of the human spirit — and there’s a decent chance they’ve heard it performed live at some point. After all, few symphonies are aired more frequently than Beethoven’s last. More… “Playing Ninth”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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Kay Redfield Jamison is the Dalio Family Professor of Mood Disorders and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In addition to academic work including the standard textbook on manic depression, she is the author of An Unquiet Mind about her own struggles with the disorder. Her latest, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, applies her expertise to the life of one of the last century’s major poets. Offering new insights into his life, Jamison brings fresh energy to interpreting Lowell’s poems from “Skunk Hour” to his later poetry. This interview was conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity.

More… “Keeping a Lowell Profile”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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If German visitors to the United States shop at a supermarket, they will probably notice beer cans on the shelves bearing familiar-sounding names like Pabst, Schlitz, or Anheuser-Busch. But if they ask Americans unfamiliar with modern-day Germany what it means to be German, the answers might surprise them. For many Americans, “typically German” things include Christmas traditions and baked goods, classical music, or brass bands and marches, and they may know a few terms like Kindergarten or Gemütlichkeit. Often, these traces of Germany are just regionally specific cultural leftovers that have managed to survive — in distorted form — into the present.

No other country has exerted such a powerful, centuries-long fascination over German emigrants than the United States. And the German-speaking countries are second only to Great Britain as a continual source of new inhabitants of America. This emigration began with isolated groups in the 17th century and continued in bursts for more than a hundred years, when a wave of mass emigration began. Until this tipping point, however, the number of relocated Germans was never more than a few hundred thousand. In his novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, the famous German author Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote of the “lively impetus toward America in the beginning of the 18th century” that was “encouraged by the desirable possessions which could be obtained.” In the 19th century, immigration patterns reflected the larger transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Between 1815 and 1914, about 40 million people came to America from Europe, including approximately seven million Germans. More… “Destination Amerika”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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