Real beauty of Bass extends beyond its luxury

If Halo 3 included a level where you go to Starbucks, it would look like the Bass Library Cafe. Every part of the room bears the uber-glossy sheen of computer animation. The floor of blue and beige marble tiles shines from wall to wall. The burgundy marble tables and wire chairs reflect the stark whiteness of the energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs. Look into the wall of windows lining the cafe. The light fixtures’ glares stare back. Every sound echoes; no sound, or reflection, is soft.

Hanging lamps, the kind usually seen above paintings, illuminate blank, bright brown wood panels, which glow so fiercely one might think they were pulsating. The muted maroon couches are plush, but firm, wary of sleep-inducing coziness.

The Bass Library’s opening ceremonies last Thursday night left me with a collision of thoughts.

I felt grateful. We are lucky beyond comprehension to attend this university. Cross Campus Library (CCL), Bass’ predecessor, was already a felicitous — if admittedly worn-out — extra. Still, Mother Yale can and wants to lavish our subterranean Valhalla with a full, $50 million renovation.

Amid this gratitude, I felt something I did not expect — remorse.

Imagine: Yalies amassed on Cross Campus, some shouting and chanting, others speaking softly, all mobbed under the stars in an October wind that reminds you that you’re alive.

What is the cause? In our parents’ era, it might have been New Haven’s trial of nine Black Panthers, or solidarity with the Kent State victims. Alumni tell stories of when students gathered on Beinecke Plaza to watch Yale seniors dispose of their Vietnam War draft cards — by handing them in to then-Chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr.

And in our generation? That a new building gathers us together is wonderful. But one cannot help asking if only a new building can gather us together.

Within last Thursday night’s Cross Campus mob, awaiting the madcap midnight rush to the new digs, I saw not only close friends, but people I hadn’t seen in too long, and many people I’d never seen before — all united by one interest, by sheer euphoric public-ness.

I wondered why this feeling is so rare. I wished it could be directed toward more than just a building.

One ceremonial speaker attempted to ennoble the festivities in this way: “People are saying libraries don’t matter anymore,” declared the speaker, a ’70s alum. Citing the Internet’s encroachment, he called on us to use the new CCL to pursue “wisdom and judgment,” with which to tackle global problems.

I could hardly hear him above the crowd’s din. Students pushed, as if in a mosh pit, having “pre-gamed” the ceremonies. One circle of roisterers raised up a shirtless Yalie on their shoulders.

How to resolve the cognitive dissonance? The speaker delineated a noble role. But Sterling Memorial Library already plays it. With Gothic church architecture, Sterling is figuratively and literally a temple of learning.

CCL’s role on campus has always been closer to that of a student center. The Bass Library enhances that role, featuring rows of lockers and computers, and exchanging the cafe tables and snack machines of CCL’s “Machine City” for a new cafe where one can buy a pear, sage and ricotta tart, or a “diablo mocha” hot chocolate.

Far be it from me to criticize student centers entirely. On the contrary: I was upset at the ceremony when the free food ran out. Still, before we pat ourselves on the back too hard, Bass is effectively a student center.

One would, in fact, be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that student centers “don’t matter anymore.” As The New Yorker wrote about Justin Timberlake’s “bringing sexy back”: “Does anything need bringing back less … ? It’s like proposing to bring back petroleum, or the N.F.L.”

Harvard and Princeton — the only two schools that Yale trails in the silly but infernally ubiquitous “U.S. News and World Report” rankings — built student centers in 1992 and 2000, respectively. Even they played catch-up with schools like Boston University, which built its student center in 1962. The student center, blending creature comforts and space-age aesthetics, has become a marketing lure that no school can afford to be without.

The Bass Library shares only part of its DNA with student centers. Its hangout areas adjoin abundances of bookshelves and study rooms.

But some say the balance between library and student center has shifted toward the latter since the CCL days.

“There aren’t enough weenie bins!” Jordan Malter ’09 said at the opening ceremonies, referring to CCL’s tiny personal study rooms. “Those were the best part of CCL.”

Near the ceremony’s end, several Yale administrators ritually placed the first books on a Bass shelf. But nobody read from their books. They simply named the titles (President Levin’s “The Work of the University”; Dean Salovey’s “The Remembered Self”).

How better to christen a library than with literature? Instead, we collectively judged books by their covers — valuing them not for what they say to us, but for what they say about us.

Yale was built to be different. The Puritans and renegade Harvard alumni who founded it imagined literally a new haven for earnest study and human connection, for the spirit of self-reliance amid the warmth of community. One cannot help but feel that the Bass Library bears the marks of a different spirit: the forces of material extravagance and corporate commodification.

My mother attended Yale in the 1970s. To this day, she speaks fondly of Machine City, with its buzzing lights, windowless walls and no distractions from the studies and conversations that defined her time at Yale.

All of these signs reveal not a fated condemnation of the Bass Library, but a risk to bear in mind. With risk comes opportunity. The Bass Library is here, ready to be defined by no number of tarts or couches, but by how we use the space.

Meaningful study, personal growth and the intimate, joyful or gritty love of conversations one remembers days, if not years, later — these can happen in any building, or in no building. These, and no student center, make our four years at Yale unique and marvelous.

And these values reveal a path for converting gratitude to Mother Yale into action. The best ways to give thanks for a gift are to use it well, and to give back. With the gift of “bright college years,” these two are one and the same.

Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.

Comments