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Sense of Place/ Sense of Self

        I am just back from a fascinating discussion with Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, a memoir of his short tenure as a staff librarian at Boston’s City prison. Steinberg, a Harvard graduate, has written for the Boston Globe, The New York Review of Books, Salon, the Paris Review, and the Daily Beast. I volunteered to attend because my friend and fellow NYU Stern alum, Ellen Singer, organized the evening, which in addition to the author reading and discussing excerpts of his book included a lively Q & A session moderated by Ari Goldman, Professor of Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of several books.

        Riding the subway to the Upper West Side on this intensely humid and warm October evening felt notably unpleasant. The folding, made of metal, chairs at the basement of Ramath Orah felt welcomingly cool but unfriendly. Then, a variety of things happened. I visited a prison library and met a few of the inmates. I attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding and was brought onto the dancing floor amongst guests who were pushing a lot. I learned to write in the air using my hands signaling letters in reverse. I heard the thumb of a hardcover book, smuggled into a prison cell, and cut into pieces to create armor for its new owner. I saw hundreds of pieces of yellow paper with scribbles and funny laundry lists on them stuck in between pages. And then it dawned on me.

        There are two types of spaces: the first type is assigned a function of circulation; the second type denotes the function of stagnation. Schools, prisons, and hospitals belong to the first type. There is constant traffic of people passing through these places. Schools allow circulation that is heavier on the entry side without compromising the exit too much. In our (privileged) world, people are encouraged to go to school, find themselves in school, and somehow hope to exit the educational system. Prisons and hospitals work a little differently. There are criteria in place that determine who will go to prison or to the hospital. But once in, one’s life is more or less determined and the chances of coming out are pretty much spoiled. This is how I understand the first type: a funnel that has people believe that they circulate—even if their trajectory is cut short for one reason or another and their life turns stagnant.

        The second type of space simply is. The only determined movement within it is this of things: books, special items (such as antiques or paintings), and (yes… this is what I am getting at) training equipment. Chances are one is allowed to step foot in these spaces, be a guest and leave. There are no predetermined ideas of how long one should stay, what should she learn, what others should expect from her. This place, which is usually well organized and follows some internal logic, makes no demands on its visitor, imposes no expectations to meet, no numbers to hit.

        No. A library simply is. A museum is. A gym is. Each one is a repository. Contrary to the funnel that forces people in or out, the repository is a pause, a moment of reflection, and a call to connecting with oneself in creativity, freedom, and confidence. This is when a space becomes a place. When trial and error are encouraged, when sequence loses its importance, and when the only voice in one’s head is one’s own. Which library do you own? Which museum? Which gym?

        Needless to say, my ride back home was a breeze.

Post by Thomai Serdari (We welcome guest posts. Email us at: