Oxford’s Bodleian Library: What could be more charming?

It’s time to write about my favorite place in the world.

While my bed, the line at Dunkin Donuts (medium coffee with milk & sugar, please), and the beach after Labor Day are all front-runners, none of these are my favorite.  Neither is the mall on a weekday, or McGolrick Park on a Sunday, even though both of those are fantastic.

No, my favorite place in the whole word is not even in America, not even on this side of the Atlantic.

My favorite place is Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

Yes, I can hear your gagging from here.  No, I could not have picked a more cliché place for a librarian.  Yes, I am aware that statement taints my reputation with affectation and conceit (or narcissism.  Or pomposity!  Or vainglory!  …not helping?)

“The Earl of Pembroke” presides regally over the Old Schools Quandrangle at the Old Library. (Aidan Kestigian)

But I can’t help it, because once I studied inside of this extremely old (1300), extremely English building, my heart was lost to its charm.  I could feel its weightiness emanating from the stone edifices, the gargoyle-lined rooftops, and the endlessness of the wooden bookshelves and carrels.

Not even those tweed-wearing, ruddy-complexioned, bright-eyed British boys could turn my head after my ears strained to the Bod’s siren song.Yes, yes, I get it.  Nerdy and cliché.  But I remember the first day I saw it.  The three main Bod buildings loomed across the street from my college, Hertford, on Catte Street.  I was stopping in the college lodge for, I don’t remember, keys or a letter or something, and it’s almost like I came upon it by accident.  I remember turning around and thinking, “That looks familia — oh.  Oh my goodness.”  Home.

The Bodleian isn’t just one place.  It’s more of a concept.  It’s also part of the Bodleian Libraries, which is made up of more than 40 libraries.  It’s a little confusing.  The Bodleian I’m talking about has three physical locations in the city of Oxford:  the Old Library, the New Library, and the Radcliffe Camera.

When I studied there, the New Library was regrettably closed (since they were trying to drop an elevator shaft down its centuries-old structure), but really, who cares?  The Old Library (whose Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room inspired Hogwarts) and the Radcliffe Camera (whose cylindrical shape and echoing marble halls lend it an air of the austere) were more than enough to satisfy.

But it wasn’t my favorite place for its structure, though beautiful, ancient, and impressive.  Nor did I love it because it is a legal deposit library (meaning it must carry copies of all works published in the United Kingdom, similar to how the Library of Congress functions for the US; Ireland, too, has also allowed works of that nation to be kept there), meaning I could pretty much read whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.

I didn’t adore it for the false floors propped over the worn stone ones that elevated every footstep to a clatter, or for the breezes whipping through the old glass windows, or for the New Library’s excessive heat, or for the Rad Cam’s draughty cold.

Not joking, the mist was really thick. (Chelsea Woods)

No, I loved it for the moment I walked over for a day of study in the early morning, and in the quiet, cobbled streets there was nothing but a thick, enchanting mist encasing the library buildings, like those that came upon travelers in the old legends before faeries would descend.

Like the ones that would envelope your senses and befuddle you and carry you away, not unlike the book which sucks you in and takes you by the neck and does not let go until you’ve drunk every drop of its world.  There was nothing but the mist and an absolute stillness and me and the libraries, rising tall above the fog which would not dissipate even as the morning sun shone.

The history of the Bodleian and of Oxford, the mystery of the mist and yet its reality, and my silent presence were one, in that moment standing there near the wrought-iron gate of the Rad Cam’s lawn.  A breeze stirred and blew, moving through the fog like a spectre, like the phantasms of all the scholars and students who have traversed those cobbles deeply in thought.

I knew then I loved that place, and I knew then that libraries are not mere book-houses; they are the capsules of time and history and energy.  They watch and look down as the mist, and the ages, roll out.