Last spring, I stood at my college reunion, in the Timothy Dwight courtyard, under a gigantic tent shielding us from the pounding rain. A friend asked how I’d describe my quintessential experience as an undergrad. Intense adolescent relationships that evolved into lifelong friendships? An education founded on insatiable curiosity? Professors whose lectures moved me to tears? All true. But for me, more than any one of those, Beinecke Rare Book Library captured the essence of my four years at Yale.
I wandered into Beinecke as a freshman, unhinged by my first set of midterms, looking for a quiet place to regroup. The cold was sharp for a Californian, and I hurried along Wall Street, avoiding the more populated Elm. I glanced to the right, and found myself facing an odd structure, strangely beautiful. I had passed by several times, but this time I stopped.
To this day, I’ve never seen anything as compelling as Beinecke. The walls are white marble squares – thick, strong, bizarrely translucent. The level of humidity, the placement of the sun, the density of the clouds all guide the light through the marble, a canvas always quivering, shifting, alive. Grays, browns and whites interweave with hints of yellows and pinks, a spectrum simultaneously limited and infinite. Shapes created by the light chase each other through the marble blocks, changing as a breeze repositions a cloud, a ray of sun gives way to a shadow – designs born of the unpredictable.
The center of the library is a gigantic pillar, encased in clear glass, holding several soaring levels of rare books and manuscripts. Hundreds of thousands of works. Written history. Yours, mine, ours. Inspiring, riveting, oddly comforting.
The surrounding area, open to the public, holds several glass cases, each with a rare book or manuscript. On that reunion weekend, I was greeted by two Gutenberg Bibles. I then moved on to Beatrix Potter, Alice In Wonderland, and maps of the “100 Aker Wood” from The World Of Pooh. I admired manuscripts from San Francisco and Marseilles, and smiled in surprise at a case of pages covered in startlingly bright silk, crimson and royal blue.
This weird and wonderful place captures my college experience – a time of compatible juxtapositions. Clunky blocks of impenetrable rock with light effortlessly flowing through. A Gutenberg Bible companionably next to Peter Rabbit. Serious and playful. Respectful and lighthearted. Reverent and fun. Beinecke makes no sense whatsoever, and somehow reinstates meaning and truth.
Beinecke and I met 38 years ago at a personal low point. Crushed and demoralized, I wondered if my career at Yale would end with those first exams. But it didn’t. I figured out how to take a test. I discovered I enjoyed writing papers. I stopped worrying that I was the most pathetic specimen ever to be admitted. I learned and struggled and learned more. Over time, I forgot to be afraid when I struggled. I had fun. I returned to Beinecke possibly thirty times during those four years, through ups and downs, calms and storms, disappointments and triumphs.
I don’t remember the exhibit on display when I first entered. I don’t remember the precise palette of light on Beinecke’s walls that day. I do remember my amazement. Even more, I remember that as I journeyed around the second floor, my curiosity returned and with it, confidence followed by perspective. Yale and I were a new relationship. We were off to a rocky start, but we had four years to work it out.
And we did.
Amy Kaufman Burk, Yale 1980, is an author and blogger. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psych intern through her first year of training. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+, gender equality, and a Rolling Stones concert. She also collaborates with educators who include her books in their curriculum. To learn more about Amy, visit her website.