In a Library: Emily Dickinson on Why We Read and the Magic of Old Books
A love-poem to those folds in spacetime that take us back to “when Sappho was a living girl.”
By Maria Popova
Every book you read, you read not with your eyes but with your world — with the totality of who and what you are, your eyes lensed with a lifetime of impressions and relationships and experiences you alone have had. No two readers ever read the same book. Each book holds in its margins infinite space for every possible reader to fill with the entirety of their being — that endless, ecstatic dialogue between reader and writer that we call literature. We engage in the dialogue for many different reasons — we read to touch into the exquisite interconnectedness of things, as Virginia Woolf did; to acquire superhuman powers, as Galileo did; to map the route to our dreams, as Jane Goodall did; to solace, empower, and transform ourselves, as Rebecca Solnit knows we do; to understand ourselves and each other better, as Alain de Botton knows we must — but we always emerge with our worlds clarified and magnified by the worlds we have visited.
Every book, in turn, has sprung from the whole of its author’s being, imprinted with the dazzling particulars of their time, place, and personhood composing their world. As a book passes from hand to hand, from self to self, from epoch to epoch, its truth — the truth of its author’s world and of every world that has touched it since — presses into our hands an origami of meaning folded from the fabric of spacetime itself.
That is what the thirty-three-year-old Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) explores in a poem written, like all of her verses, without a title but titled “In a Library” by Mabel Loomis Todd in the first edition of Dickinson’s poetry, published four years after her death.
Visiting the poet’s home during my research for Figuring, I was especially taken with the large library room downstairs, to the shelves of which much of the family’s original collection has been restored — thick leather-bound volumes as various as Paradise Lost, Emerson’s essays, and Clarissa Munger Badger’s botanical art. Spine by gilded spine, they stand as the building blocks of the young poet’s old soul, both plunging her into the depths of collective memory and elevating her above the plane of her time, to that otherworldly place from which she gave us her far-seeing eternal verses.
A precious — mouldering pleasure — ’tis —
To meet an Antique Book —
In just the Dress his Century wore —
A privilege — I think —
His venerable Hand to take —
And warming in our own —
A passage back — or two — to make —
To Times when he — was young —
His quaint opinions — to inspect —
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind —
The Literature of Man —
What interested Scholars — most —
What Competitions ran —
When Plato — was a Certainty —
And Sophocles — a Man —
When Sappho — was a living Girl —
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante — deified —
Facts Centuries before
He traverses — familiar —
As One should come to Town —
And tell you all your Dreams — were true —
He lived — where Dreams were born —
His presence is Enchantment —
You beg him not to go —
Old Volume shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize — just so —
Complement with Gwendolyn Brooks’s lyric love letter to books, composed a century later, and Jeanette Winterson on why we read, then revisit Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters and one of her most ravishing poems brought to life as an animated song.
Published July 29, 2022