Last spring, I sat in the Beinecke Library’s Reading Room, poring over a manuscript copy of Hannah Crafts’ “The Bondwoman’s Narrative.” I saw the meandering cursive writings on the page and where she must have pressed her pen harder into the paper, creating blotches of ink. I was writing a paper about the novel for my English seminar and had read the version I’d gotten from the Yale Bookstore for class. But seeing the manuscript version brought the text alive in a way it hadn’t been before; I felt closer to the author, closer to the words.
And just a few weeks ago — for the seminar “Cultures of Militarism in Asia and the Pacific” — some other students and I met in the Beinecke to look at primary source documents relating to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. I was able to look closely at the letters that a husband had sent to his wife during the conflict and the responses she had sent him. I felt like I could better understand the impact of the war on people’s psyches by examining parts of this relationship. After I came back from class, I reflected on how the resources in the Beinecke and in Yale archives are available for all of us all the time. And while I have used these resources when papers require a research component, for instance, I wish that in my four years here I’d spent more time in the Beinecke Reading Room, more time looking closely at manuscripts and letters, beginning to see through people’s handwriting and inner thoughts of how they experienced the world.
It’s difficult to make time for intellectual curiosities outside of the boundaries of our classes and assignments. It’s hard to read a novel or a poetry collection or a piece of cultural criticism that we’re interested in just because. We have a finite amount of time at this school, and we have to complete the things that seem to be the most “pressing.” But, if you do happen to have time on the weekends, I urge you to explore the immense wealth of resources that the Yale library system offers us. I wish that I’d realized earlier on that I can actually find out more about the questions that have plagued my mind. I can find out more about the periods of history that I can’t visualize, through the documents and letters and various materials Yale’s archives at the Sterling library and at the Beinecke house.
It can be enlightening to read a book that moves you, but another layer of this experience is seeing the way that the author’s pen moved on the page, seeing the environment in which the work was created. What letters were people sending one another in that time, what were people thinking, what were they imagining? We actually have the ability to move towards a deeper understanding of the periods of history that intrigue us.
This year, I had the opportunity to serve on the student committee for the Windham-Campbell Prizes. I was able to attend a dinner at the Beinecke with faculty and the prize winners and I couldn’t stop looking around. The Beinecke is beautiful — walls of books shine in a mystical light, the Gutenberg Bible sits enclosed in its case — but its beauty can make it seem inaccessible to us. When I go to the Beinecke, it’s often for an event, for a reason, and I remember asking myself during this dinner why I didn’t go to the Beinecke more often, not for class, not for an event or a dinner, but for myself.
Yale is beautiful. We live in architectural wonders, and, as we walk to class, we listen to the sounds of bells and see Harkness Tower reaching into the sky. But so often beauty is associated with inaccessibility; it has an untouchable quality. We might go into the Beinecke and stare in wonder at the stacks of books, at the manuscripts in their cases, and feel that all of this beauty is not ours to engage with. But one of the incredible things about a Yale education is that in the four years that we’re here, we all can access the knowledge that lives in these buildings. It’s for us to see and handle with care.
I’ve spoken with English professors who often say that they wish that students attended more Beinecke lectures and events. Every month, the Beinecke hosts tours and teas, which many of us might feel we don’t have the time to attend. But we can attend these events. Even if no other undergraduate students show up to them, you can go to events that interest you at the Beinecke. You can carve out a part of your day to investigate a question that interests you, outside of your daily commitments and assignments. Knowledge exists around you, for you, so take it! Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you can.
MEGHANA MYSORE is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .