Towers of books and seas of words
It’s been a full year now since I lived in Oxford, since each day began by cycling down Headington Hill in the chill morning air, arriving in City Centre just in time for the hour the libraries opened. These libraries, the great and ancient symbols of the city, were spaces of consistent wonder and discovery, the site of hundreds of hours buried in towers of books and seas of words. As both a student and a lover of literature and language, this was all an immense joy to me. Reading in these disciplines as part of SCIO’s Michaelmas Term program provided me with a context utterly encouraging of deep and expansive learning, and dwelling each day within the libraries of Oxford flung wide the gate into this pursuit.
In the halls of my memory, these libraries take on the form of a unified and elegant tapestry, each one distinctly expressed but inextricably of a piece with the rest, characterized by the remembered instants of existence left behind within them. The long and lovely reading days became a ritual, of sorts: chaining my bicycle to whatever fence I could find, scanning my reader’s card, finding a desk, collecting my books, and burrowing down until dark, occasionally stepping out to walk the streets or grab lunch – and all this time creating, forming ideas and connections and essays and memories.
The lower reading room of the Radcliffe Camera, with its long desks and high windows, was the space within which I explored Margery Kempe’s mad medieval ecstasies, Coleridge’s pantheistic inclinations, and Blake’s apocalyptic mythology. Within the sleek glass of the Rotheremere American Institute, long lonely hours cloistered away with Thomas Jefferson sharpened my understanding of religion and republicanism in early America. In the magnificent reading room of the labyrinthine Taylorian Institute (preferably, at one of the six balcony desks), I swam through an ocean of linguistic theory, overwhelmed by the unfamiliar subject but enchanted by its richness. On Saint Cross Road, the English Faculty Library opened up new worlds with each passing week: Byron, Keats, both Shelleys. In December, the smell of incense drifted from the Pusey House chapel into its library, sanctifying the dim quiet corner where I encountered Ginsberg’s manic verse for the first time.
The landscape of my memories of Oxford is chiseled around the landmarks of the University’s libraries, these sites strong with the magic of discovery and creation. It was in these ancient halls, among the quiet shelves, that minds resided alongside one another, lining the desks day after day, puzzling, inquiring, pressing into the complexities of existence. This is the air one breathes at SCIO, in the incredible privilege of being an Oxford student.
And now I move through life after Oxford, after undergrad, very much dwelling in uncertainty about the path that my future will take. But in this, I can’t help myself from returning, often in my mind, to the moments of time when the pressing concerns of my present involved a ten-hour shift in the Taylorian reading room, at a balcony desk overlooking the passing of hours on St. Giles’ Street, engrossed in poetry and the pursuit of articulating human experience, utterly inspired by the beauty and grace of the physical space I existed within for that moment.
– Micah Winters –
Michaelmas Term, 2017