The Suzzallo Library reading room at the University of Washington resembles a grand Cathedral; only here, instead of worshipping Christ, students bow their heads deep into books, praying to attain wisdom (or at least a passing grade) from the gods of academe. Above them, royal yet industrious-looking iron chandeliers hang low from the vaulted cieling, emitting a mix of soft amber and fluorescent light as the students hunch in stiff, scholarly wooden chairs.

One of the greatest things about the room, a friend of mine once said, is that the architects could have constructed at least three more floors in the space that silence now occupies – which might have housed more books and stressed-out students – but chose instead to create an aesthetically impressive structure in which people could study and learn. The impact of that decision echoes quietly in the humbling sense of awe one feels as they step inside and look up.

I’ve paid my dues at the library’s desks, sweated and napped here in plenty of pre-final cram sessions. But I remember that the astounding peace was always a bit of a distraction – it’s very difficult to get worked up about scores or papers when the very air around you inspires meditation. So many campus libraries the world over feel oppressive and stuffy, but the openness of Suzzallo makes room for thought and imagination. Often when I come I’ll bring the day’s paper or a novel, maybe a cup of coffee. As I read, every word seems to float, every event is allowed impact, and every character is able to move and be heard.

Buildings like Suzzallo embody what I feel is (or should be) the spirit of Academia – a kind of bubble from which to examine and understand the world. People often dismiss academics as radicals, criticizing them for not being connected to reality; while this argument holds some water, it is important to remember how easy it is to lose sight of big realities in the every day hustle. In order to see our world in the larger context, some distance from the grind is necessary.

You see, the roar of the everyday world – the language of direct returns and bottom lines – does not translate into the sanctuary of the reading room: it simply evaporates into the silence, inaudible above the pencil scratching of the knowledge seekers.


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