Today’s Obsession: The Athenaeum

Yesterday, I found myself strolling around the first floor of the Boston Athenaeum, breathing in the moldy old books, the smell of floor polish, the stunning views. Every time I enter than building, I get the same feeling of passion and comfort and awe.

I picked up a membership application on the way out. $115 is about what it costs for a month of yoga, and I can get the same soothing benefits from the Athenaeum. It’s about time. I owe it to myself.

The 5th floor of the Athenaeum.

Check out the arts column from freshman year, prompted by a visit to the Athenaeum after the break.


Huntington News
Inside Column: At the Athenaeum: history, knowledge
Marian’s Musings
2/18/2010
By Marian Daniells, News Staff

All I want for Christmas is…a membership at the Boston Athenaeum.

Never heard of it? I know in a city so rich in history, it’s challenging to remember any building of significance. But when it houses a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, a book bound in human skin and over 600,000 other volumes, it’s worth remembering.

I’ve long marveled at the juxtaposition of historic and new that Boston offers, how standing downtown I can see both skyscrapers and the Old State House in a single view. To me, that is very indicative of what Boston stands for: the fusion of Revolutionary-era and revolutionary.

The Boston Athenaeum is representative of Old Boston; nestled on Beacon Hill, it served as a getaway for wealthy families to bring their dogs and relax amid the oak floors and Italian molded ceilings. Membership was exclusive and the library had a reputation for being snobby.

But as David Bowie crooned, the times are ch-ch-ch-changin. In an effort to market itself to a new generation of members (Athenaeumans?), the library has renovated, updated its technology and has even become Kindle friendly. But the library doesn’t need to take those measures. If they’d open their doors to the public for a day and showcase the architecture and sheer beauty of the building, they’d have a waiting list for membership.

Last Friday, I found myself wandering about the fourth floor, chatting up the director’s secretary and awestruck by the vast number of books. For a simple Journalism 1 assignment, I called the Athenaeum and asked to interview Paula Matthews, the Athenaeum’s director and librarian. Despite her lofty position, she happily agreed.

I was like a kid visiting Disneyland for the first time as the director led me on a personal tour of all five floors, including the conservation laboratory, where chief conservator James Reid-Cunningham talked me through his plans to preserve a 17th century map of West Africa. Having toyed with the idea of being a museum curator, I was enthralled. One building seemed to house all of my passions.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I used to hate books. In fourth grade, my teacher hosted a reading competition. Never one to turn down a challenge, I figured I’d give books a shot. But when the competition was more than half over and I hadn’t read a single book (we were supposed to read nine books in nine weeks), I broke down.

In a conference the next morning with my dad and teacher, something switched. My teacher convinced me that reading shouldn’t be such a pain and figured that I just needed to find the right genre. Then she helped me find a book.

I read 70 pages that night (quite a feat for an eight-year old). Ever since, I’ve been enthralled by the world of books; all the different times, characters, places and fairy tales.

When I read those stories, I live numerous lives: I’ve been a geisha in World War II Japan, I’ve danced with rabbits and Cheshire cats, I’ve traveled the world countless times over and yes, I’ve fallen in love with Mr. Darcy (several times).

The Boston Athenaeum serves as a haven for my other lives. There, amid the spiral staircases and the view of the Old Granary Burial Ground, I can be any leading lady I choose. I can escape the craziness of the city and of college life, and just curl up on the fourth floor with a Russian novel.

However, the building has more to offer than just books. The first floor has a gallery open to non-members and all the floors are tastefully decorated with art from donors and famous collectors. And for those that prefer Curious George to Nabokov, there are rooms just for kids. There are rooms for scholars, and for reading any of the hundreds of papers and magazines that the Athenaeum subscribes to.

Mostly, though, the library is just as Matthews described in response to one of my pestering questions: “It’s an atmosphere. It’s a very serene kind of place. It’s a combination of the architecture and the art and the books.” All this, ladies and gentlemen, for the affordable annual fee of $115 (for those under 41 anyway).

The art and the architecture and the books truly are stunning, but the atmosphere of the building ultimately wins me over. It’s quite possibly the most ideal place to study for midterms. And if cramming doesn’t seem to work, the building houses so much knowledge and history, just that simply being there might make me smarter.

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