Amidst Books



A trip to the Boston Athenaeum redefines my outlook on senior year.

Source: Google Images
Source: Google Images

The first night of my senior year will define my attitude towards my last year in college. Having moved into my senior suite in Adams House’s affectionately named Sky Palace (6th floor, no elevators) – or, as I like to call it, the bane of my senior existence that will also give me calves of steel – I desperately needed to do something to kick off senior year. I met up with a friend searching for the same. We walked around the square, looking for something exciting to do. We saw freshmen in hordes going from house to house, excited to experience their first college party, adorned in their Friday night best. Soon we found ourselves on the hammock in Lev courtyard, a little jaded about most things on campus. At that point we noticed a shuttle pulling up to Mather, and without giving much thought, we both made a run for it. I didn’t know why we had done it, or even where we were going. But at that moment, running to catch up to the shuttle, without any previous notion of where I needed to be, I felt liberated. I took that as a sign, and since then I have made every effort to jump onto every shuttle I see on my way in the next year. Before you roll your eyes, I don’t mean this literally. Really all this means is, I am ready to take up any opportunity that life throws at me, without much consideration of consequences. I am taking a leap of faith this year, and that is exactly what led me to discover a little piece of Boston I had never experienced before.

But first, a little digression – I know, it’s time for that already. Throughout college, I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring the arts and the sciences. The Indy was my introduction to the arts scene at Harvard. Through the Indy I became a judge at Harvard Theater Awards, which is when the theater bug bit me. The rest, as they say, is history. From there I went on to design sets, direct tech, and direct plays. However, it was also in my freshman year that I stopped feeling the need to explore beyond. My work in lab kept me shuttling in and out of the Harvard bubble, but the windy, frosty, rainy suburbia of Belmont does not a bustling arts scene make. Therefore, until this year, I have quite successfully avoided the vast cultural experiences that Boston has to offer. Jumping onto the shuttle of senior year experiences, I decided to change that last week.

A friend from the Boston area had told me that he had a membership for the Boston Athenaeum. What is that, you ask? I had the same question. Until that day, my excursions into the city of Boston had been limited to the North End, the aquarium, Mike’s pastries, Quincy market, and Sunday dim sum at Chinatown (if you haven’t checked these out yet, you should get on that right now. I mean, yes, stop reading, get on the T, and go get some Mike’s).
The Athenaeum, as it turned out, is a fascinating place. It is one of the oldest private libraries in the United States. Founded in 1807, the library is home to many manuscripts and first editions of philosophical and artistic works. It also specializes in Boston and New England history. It grew through private contributions and soon became one of the largest libraries in the country. Although the history of the library is fascinating, the reason I am even writing about this place is because of its atmosphere.

Having spent the last three years amidst Widener, Lamont, Cabot and a multitude of house libraries, I never thought that a library could ever impress me. However, as soon as I walked in through the gates of the Athenaeum, I was floored. The polished marble floors led to the first floor reading room, which is open to the public. I was not impressed by the grandeur of the place; rather, I fell in love with the intimacy. As I went from one open hallway to the next, peaking into reading rooms and galleries, I was in awe of the little pieces of history that had taken root in the nooks and crannies, seeped through the cracks of the pillars that stood, quite ironically, humble. The first time I had walked into Widener, I was intimidated. I was intimidated by the collections of books, the knowledge of centuries of scholars imposing their expectations and achievements alike to the freshman-me. I never went back, other than to quickly check out books. In the Athenaeum, away from campus, I somehow felt at home. It was intimate, and I felt as if I had stumbled upon a long-hidden secret of Boston. The majority of the collections were stored in Widener-like stacks. However, the galleries housed some interesting artwork, along with books. I was really impressed by the pieces of Boston history – an old map, portraits of the city’s historically important figures, and sketches of the buildings that had lined the streets around the library centuries ago.
The library also had an amazing balcony on the upper floor, which is unfortunately only open to members. But the view from the balcony was one that summarized, in a lot of ways, all of the things I had yet to experience in the city. The Commons was at the center of the view (a reminder of the open-air Shakespeare productions I never attended), surrounded by Suffolk, Emerson, and bits of BU in the distance. I could imagine that Northeastern was somewhere around the corner. The view reminded me that I had never actually visited any of these universities, never gotten to know their students. I regretted that in the past three years, the bubble had precluded me from going out to explore the city’s diverse student bodies and learn from their experiences. However, more than regret, I think I took that view in as new frontiers to cover. I left the Athenaeum excited.

As the crisp wind of the New England fall slowly superseded the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun, I ambled through the rolling streets of Beacon Hill. Within ten minutes, I had walked into a new neighborhood of the city – distinct in architecture, socioeconomic strata, and most importantly, culture. It was fascinating to experience the diversity of the city in such a small span of time. This further spurred me to make it a point to get into the city as much as possible.

Heading back across the Charles, I reminded myself that Cambridge has been great for me. In this small corner of a new city, I had first stepped out of my home, away from family and old friends, and built a foundation of independence, one that I was sure to rely on for the rest of my life. However, I had also grown up in the past three years, and I knew that the time had come to step out of what had become safe and a second home, to explore the unaccustomed.
The Athenaeum’s first floor and regular exhibitions and film screenings are open to the public. They also have tours for nonmembers on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:00pm. You can visit the Athenaeum’s website for more details:

Sayantan Deb ’14 ([email protected]) is coming to terms with being a senior. If you ask him in person, however, he will burst into tears.