Libraries in my life: Vienna
In February of my sophomore year at Kenyon College, I decided I couldn’t stand another long, rainy winter stuck under leaden skies in central Ohio. So I found a study-abroad program in Europe — in Vienna, where the heavy, drizzly gray sets in around November and never goes away until April. I didn’t know that, of course, when we left for the year on our discount charter plane full of undergrads. We were going to Europe!
Anyone who has the chance to study abroad shouldn’t miss it; careers and mortgages set in all too soon. But the notion of roaming free, with a backpack and a Eurailpass ... well, that wasn’t entirely us. We had our chances to travel and we grabbed them, but the main cast of our experience was three seasons, fall winter and spring, within the grand gray eminence of a faded civilization, a massive but still graceful old city that had lost its empire and been shattered by two world wars. We were American kids — we knew next to nothing about this, but here we were, walking wide-eyed along the old streets, by lines of machine-gun bullet holes that ran across the faces of buildings from the street battle the Russians and Germans had fought here in 1945. And then, all too soon, winter set in.
I found myself in libraries. I had always been drawn to these, and here I searched out two: the library of the British Council, just down the street in the center city from the building where we had our classes, and the American Library, which was farther off somewhere. The British Council had curtains and dark wood paneling, and no one else ever seemed to be there. I sat in a captain’s chair at a polished wood table and read Elliot’s “The Waste Land,” which seemed to be about central Europe in the early 70s, still struggling after its self-made devastation and horror to come back to life.
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The American Library was in a newer section, and it could have been lifted over from a suburban junior high back home. I sat in molded chairs of colored plastic discovering James Thurber and E.B. White, who'd been office-mates on the New Yorker staff and whose work had such a casual grace, such natural lucidity. Reading those guys opened me up to what writing could be — what you might possibly do, if you could ever find the perfect words and make it all seem effortless.
“The ghost that got into our house on the night of November 17, 1915,” wrote Thurber, “raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstandings that I’m sorry I didn’t just let it keep on walking, and go to bed.” For just that opening sentence, how can you do better than “a hullabaloo of misunderstandings”? You can’t. That’s what I saw.
A third library was the dim little chamber that our school kept, and what I mainly remember is the fat thesaurus it had. I spent hours in that book, trying to find the naturally perfect words just as White and Thurber had. What I realized eventually, though I’m not sure it happened then, was that somehow you can’t find the essential way to say something in a book. You have to search for it in yourself.
I don’t know if I figured anything out in Vienna, but my time in the city set me on a path. I would travel and live overseas through a good part of my twenties; and, then and thereafter, I would go on writing the best I could. I’m still searching for the essential words, and for a story to tell in such a natural way that it opens up a clarity inside. For me, Vienna didn’t offer much clarity; it offered echoes, with great and gloomy spaces to walk through and a whole lot to wonder about.
Eventually, the heavy skies did open up. But I find I don’t remember the spring, which surely was beautiful, so much as I do that long-ago winter, when we wandered the gray streets by the great buildings with the bullet holes, and wondered about civilization, and history, and the meaning of words and our lives.
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
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