by Polina Kroik
In one of the first scenes in Wim Wenders’s film “Wings of Desire,” the angel Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz), wanders through the serpentine halls of Berlin’s Staatsbibliotek, listening to patrons’ thoughts. There are schoolchildren doing their homework, a young dark-haired man reading the Bible in Hebrew, and an old man reflecting on the changing world as he struggles to climb the stairs. They are alone with their reflections but also together, forming a community of sorts through their physical proximity with one another and with a myriad of volumes on the shelves.
This scene flashed through my mind as I walked into New York Public Library’s newly reopened (and renamed) Mid-Manhattan branch sometime last week. It was my first visit to the library since the start of the pandemic—or rather, the first time I was allowed to go past the entryway, where one can only pick up pre-ordered books, and venture into the heart of the library. For the first time in over a year I could meander through a comforting labyrinth, gaze at the mosaic of spines, and leaf through any volume that struck my fancy. The desks and benches were still off bounds, yet I could feel the presence of other patrons and listen to librarians’ voices as they answered questions or talked quietly to one another.
When the libraries closed in March 2020, I didn’t realize just how much I would miss these quiet spaces where I keep company with books, but also, as in the Wim Wenders film, hear my thoughts intermingle with those of others.
Living in Queens and working as an adjunct professor at a public college, I quickly became aware of the extent of the COVID crisis. Before the colleges closed, I anxiously followed the news from Italy and Israel, trying to reconcile the business-as-usual attitude of my employers with the catastrophes unfolding in those countries. Then, when the shutdown came, I focused most of my attention on shifting my courses online and supporting students through the difficult transition.
As I continued to follow the situation, abroad and in my home borough, the locked doors of my neighborhood library were no more alarming than the shuttered coffee shops and restaurants, or the increasingly empty streets. Yet, even then, a part of me knew that the library’s darkened windows and abandoned, trash-strewn entrance would come to represent a greater privation.
I began to feel the absence of the library space in earnest a few months into the pandemic. As the country was instructed to adjust to a new normal, I thought I could salvage something of my shattered writing routine. I do most of my writing at home, either at the kitchen table or at the corner of my couch, and so the lockdown should not have been much of an obstacle. On the contrary, as people have been telling me, with all this free time at home, I should be able to finish all those stories and essays that languished on my computer.
But writing—or, to be precise, writing for others—had never come easily. I grew up in an immigrant family that owned few books, and even fewer in the languages I read fluently. My parents, who had come of age in the Soviet Union, regarded writing with trepidation: it wasn’t a viable profession, like medicine or engineering, and it got people into serious trouble. From what they said, I understood that there were three kinds of writers: the great geniuses of the 19th century, like Chekhov and Dostoevsky (whose thick, leather-bound volumes did grace our shelves), dissidents who wound up dead or in prison, and “graphomaniacs”: sick people who simply couldn’t help but put their disturbed thoughts on paper.
I began to see my writing in a different light in college with the help of a few kind teachers, but it was really the library that allowed me to become a writer. At home, in the college dorm room and in most of the classrooms, I was constrained by the roles I was expected to play and could rarely find a voice able to say what I wanted—and needed—to say. It was only in the impersonal space of the library, in the company of books, and the specters of those real or imagined patron saints, that I was finally liberated from constricting expectations and could begin to form sentences that lived.
For a long time, I’d imagined my writing as a kind of disembodiment: letting go of the limitations of the woman’s, or an immigrant’s, body. But as I wandered through the newly reopened library last week, I realized that part of what I’d missed was my physical presence in that singular space. Perhaps it is because the library is not unlike a church or a temple: it consecrates literary writing, giving it a reality that it might not otherwise possess.
But libraries aren’t just for writers. They are also deeply democratic spaces, where anyone is free to pursue their passions and become whatever they desire to be. In a society that prizes intense and immediate “engagement,” we are often told that everything that matters occurs in moments of direct and absorbing interaction. What isn’t mentioned is that there are a myriad of rules and assumptions that structure every exchange—at school, at work, or on the latest app.
Libraries, on the other hand, encourage us to disengage and connect in lighter, looser ways. There are no ‘like’ buttons to click; no mandatory social rituals or workplace activities. We are free to reflect, study, think, or write on our own terms while still existing in relationship to others.
Anyone who has struggled to fit in, who hasn’t immediately found their place in the world, knows how vital these spaces can be. For me, the library is the place where I can return to my true self, discover new ways of writing and being, and where, very often, I feel most at home.
Polina Kroik is a New York-based writer who has contributed to The New York Daily News, Lilith Magazine, and Inside Higher Ed blogs. Her book of literary criticism, Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work in American Literature and Film, has been published by Routledge. She teaches at Fordham University and Baruch College.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · April 2022
Header image by Jorge Franganillo.