The librarian is famous for his beard. Periodically he rises from his desk and moves around the margins of the room, to shelve a book or to command silence.
No headphones buzz. No phones ring. The room is warm, a welcome refuge. Like primary-school children, we hang up our wet jackets and take off our snow-choked boots before we enter.
Every day, the librarian restocks the bowl of Werther’s Originals he keeps for students, and we each take one as we leave--reverently, silently, nodding to his deputy behind the desk.
I’m in the first year of my undergraduate degree, and I want to study literature, but instead I’m skiddling around on the edges of it, taking elementary courses in syntax and Latin and sociolinguistics. Next year I’ll sign up for the long slog from Cædmon to Coetzee--but for now, I’m just happy to be here.
This is the Birks Reading Room, on the McGill University campus, in the city of Montréal, in the province of Québec, Canada, the middle of winter. Thick layers of library insulate me from the world outside. Enormous dictionaries, still not big enough to contain all the words in existence. Stained glass and lamplight and wood panelling. Readers perched on their books hour after hour, their work sustained only by silence, slow time, and the occasional toffee.
This is what I imagined academia would be like.
Four years later, I’m working in a university building in Edinburgh, redrafting an essay to submit to an academic journal. My fellow writer keeps interrupting me--and I keep interrupting her, with questions: what did Tiberius do on Capri, what’s a better word for ‘emerge’ here, what’s for lunch? People come in and out of the room, with more questions.
The door bangs. We feast on soup and bread. Music plays continually. My fellow writer demands Bach’s Coffee Cantata, for the third time today. It begins, Shweight stille, plaudert nicht (be still, stop nattering).
The street outside provides another soundtrack. Snatches of conversation and distant traffic and someone playing the drums, badly. Everything smells of curry. And there’s a parrot.
This is not what I imagined academia would be like.
And yet, on the laptop screen before me are some paragraphs about literature that make more sense than anything I’ve ever written before. I have a sense of purpose: a story to tell.
Here at EdJoWriWe, I’m surrounded by other writers; all of us are busily working, but rarely with our heads down. We hum and Tweet. We argue. We gaze into space. And somehow, writing is happening. Good writing. It’s very strange. It’s not what I expected.
But that’s EdJoWriWe for you.