Graffiti in the stacks

Now for something unrelated to queer or angsty relationship things. I’ve recently been reading a few blogs which mostly describe their authors’ lives – in particular I’ve been giggling quietly at Oh God, My Wife Is German, which makes my wanderlust act up but makes up for it by being very funny.

I used to blog that way too, about the ins and outs of my life (although really it was 75% complaining about homework), and to be honest, I quite miss doing that. It’s a little stressful trying to be a Serious Blog about Serious Things, always trying to say something clever or profound; empirical evidence shows me to be reasonably intelligent, but I just have a hard time saying smart things, even online.

I’ve journalled for over ten years now, but the rate at which I add entries has greatly decreased since I turned 17. I write very quickly if equipped with the right writing instrument and hand, but handwriting is still so slow – it just can’t keep up with the rate at which thoughts are flying through your head. I still require hours for a proper update about what’s going on in my life, especially since the amount of information I want to record snowballs with every entry I don’t write. After an entry I often feel guilty about wasting time that should have been spent on homework, and so it gets worse.

I write slowly on the computer too, but perhaps because I’m typing (look! words on a screen!), I don’t feel as bad about it. I’ve thought about keeping a diary on the computer instead, but for some reason all my attempts at doing so have failed. Long Word documents just feel too insubstantial and useless; they give you neither the permanency of dyed fibres or bits saved on multiple servers, nor the sense of accomplishment you get from putting a bookmark in and closing a codex or hitting ‘Publish’ on a blog post, and rediscovering earlier entries is both difficult and inelegant.

Anyway, back to what prompted this post. My university dorm room isn’t very suited for studying. The ceiling lamp is dim, my table lamp gives off incredible amounts of heat, my table itself is often messy, and unlike last year when my bed and desk were in different rooms, I now live mostly in my bed because there’s just more space there. As a rule I hate doing any serious work on a non-rigid surface and have no idea how my sibling manages it all the time. But work needs to be done (at some point) and so I have been spending more time working outside my room this semester.

I suspect this is a situation many run into because the libraries here are always full of people doing homework. I used to wonder why people would head out to study, but now that I’m living in an environment not particularly conducive to getting things done, I can see why.

The most popular library at my university is located entirely underground. I don’t understand why people go there. It has very comfortable couches and printers, yes, but it’s underground.

I realized after trying to study there for the first time that I absolutely hate being away from sunlight in the day. My roommate likes to keep the shades drawn every hour of the day, which makes my room feel like an alternate realm of perpetual night, and not very pleasant to be in.

I used to have no problems with being indoors, but after coming to university I now avoid it if I can. (I suspect this is largely because of the weather. The heat in Singapore makes being outdoors not nearly half as pleasant as it is here.) When I’m in America, even the biggest open space inspires some desire to escape if it doesn’t have a window at least the height of my torso. The space I’m currently sitting in is basically an entire floor of books with very narrow aisles between the shelves, a low foreboding ceiling lined with uninspiring fluorescent rectangles, but because I have my window and a sunlit view outside, I feel incredibly comfortable and at peace.

There is a bigger – much bigger – library not far away from the underground one, a prominent landmark that extends 14 storeys into the sky. Imagine! 14 storeys of books – 4.5 million books, to be precise. Last year a girl from the scifi club made an offhand comment about study spaces up in the bookstacks. I went looking, braved a rude security guard, and was richly rewarded.

The stacks are, as previously described, just massive rooms filled with books and little else. If the 4.5 million sum is accurate, this works out to an average of 321428.571429 books per floor; you can imagine that there isn’t space for much else. But at the very sides of each room there are a few study carrels aligned with the windows of the building, little nooks that each come with two shelves, two power sockets, a desk, and a hard wooden chair.

love these spaces. No words can describe how fond I am of them. My first time in the stacks was such a profound experience that I ended up drafting a post for my old personal friends-only blog instead of writing the research paper I was supposed to be working on.

(edited from original draft) I keep getting little static shocks from resting my arms on the metal strip oddly placed at the front of the desk, but apart from that, this is lovely. I feel connected to the other people in this library. I can hear the creaking chair of whoever is upstairs. It’s my own little world here, ensconced by books; I love this. It’s not like the study rooms in [the underground library], which are a private space yes – but they are tiny and you are acutely aware that they are not so much a world as a room. Here looking out of the window I see, admittedly, one of the uglier facets of [my university]: [the grimy club, an ugly building, the ugliest residential buildings in the distance, the Courtyard Marriott hotel]. I just saw [acquaintance from primary school]’s pictures from Oxford and… (probably something envious about beautiful campuses) … to my left are those, but to my right are books, glorious books. The smell of books keeps renewing itself although I’ve been here for 40 minutes already. It just doesn’t go away. A fragrance that you never get acclimatized to. Wonderful.

That feeling remains. I love how connected yet isolated I feel in the carrels; it’s a wonderful experience for someone like me who draws energy from being around people but gets tired from actually interacting with them for long. I never know who is above or below me, and really, I prefer not knowing; the feeling of camaraderie with faceless strangers who will never become anything more than strangers is one that I cherish. I think there is an affinity between strangers that, when it exists, feels more essential, more fundamental, than any bond you could have with people you know personally. The relationship isn’t one based on some external history that you share, not some fuzzy emotional attachment that you’ve previously developed. It’s one that is founded on absolutes, on objective truths about both of your states in the moment. Independent of superficial appearances, you are both human. You are both students. You both have work to be done and probably aren’t doing it.

As with any public space (except perhaps in Singapore), the stacks contain their fair share of graffiti. I almost always use the same carrel, and have become familiar with the graffiti there – but I still manage to find a new piece every time.

There are names. Stephen Herd was here. Nils-Bertil fucks dogs. (I wonder who wrote this. An enemy?) George Bush Jr. was here! I will be a stupid President! from someone who disagreed with the choices his administration made. R PeL ’00. EKT 10/22/85. E.R.F. ’69…1969. This graffiti is from 44 years ago. That feels odd. But it’s also funny to see that men back then (and this was definitely a man) could also have terrible handwriting.

There is love…or maybe heartbreak is a more apt descriptor. Milena is written in pencil-bold, followed by …said no. A comment later added next to it in blue pen reads F.L., don’t despair, you are great! There is a heart containing what appears to be a baseball and the letters ‘VWT’. I still love you but you don’t love me back and I need someone to love… and another lonely night. Bad poetry, too: Here I sit / broken hearted / tried to shit / but only farted. Oct 5 ’08.

A rather obnoxiously large I want to fuck Joslyn, upon closer inspection, has been reprimanded by another student, who crossed out fuck with a faint pencil line and wrote HOLD perhaps? Another has written well writing it on a wall probably won’t get you closer…

Then there are the more academic scribbles. Why am I reading Shakespeare and arguing that he’s slightly less misogynistic than his contemporaries? The Fibonacci triangle, up till 1 3 1 1 2 2 1. Studying ain’t fun. There is an exchange about propositional logic: If it’s raining then there’s water. If it’s not raining, there isn’t water. A = B ergo ~A = ~B. Isn’t logic beautiful? A later occupant of this carrel emphatically responded NO! and rewrote these statements to be more logically sound (mere one-sided implication is not enough to prove equivalence) and furnished the shelf with two truth tables to demonstrate it.

And the mysterious. I will never meet Jessica Chen. You are stupid. Some words in Cyrillic that I cannot read.

I love the graffiti in the stacks, and the sense of history I feel when I’m in these spaces. It’s fascinating to read the dialogue between students over the years. I know these tables aren’t that old, and have been replaced many times in the lifetime of the building, but in my head I imagine a montage of thousands of students – for a very long time all male and white, then slowly diversifying – all sitting at the same seat, hunched over books and later laptops, and the landscape beyond the window gradually changing into the view I see today: a strange mix of faux-Gothic churches and ugly flat rooftops, both out of place in the sea of green and yellow trees engulfing them and spreading into the distance. It feels like a scene out of an early Italian landscape painting – the atmospheric perspective is perfect – but then there is an ugly hotel to the right and mysterious boxy units on top of a building whose purpose I cannot fathom.

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I quite enjoyed writing this. Next time I might tell you about my cycling trip to the local park, how I biked home in an absolutely terrible rain storm (cycling on the road for the first time, too) and how much fun it was. And how much my legs hurt right now.


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