An Intellectual Kegger Down the Hill

friday night out at the athenaeum

Quick—where were you the second-to-last Friday night of fall semester? Pregaming with the bros, no doubt? Headed off to that SSDP “meeting”? Or perhaps just settling in for a cozy evening of Facebook stalking? (Don’t deny it. I know you commented on That Guy’s 533rd picture. How? Oh, it, um, popped up on my newsfeed.)

Perhaps the details of that night have long since dimmed to insignificance, but I can pretty confidently tell you where I was: reading poetry with octogenarians at the Providence Athenaeum. Hell yeah, that’s what I call a Friday night. But hear me out: if you’re looking to renew your faith in the delightfulness of the written word—and the charm of a truly romantic study space—I suggest you grab your beret and come along next time.

What is the Providence Athenaeum, you ask? It’s the sort of library you used to dream of finding at an Ivy League school, before you learned to settle for that hulking mass of concrete we call the Rock. The Athenaeum, conveniently located one block down the hill from our offensively unromantic library, dates from 1838. (It was originally founded in another location in 1753; I don’t know about you, but as a Midwesterner, I am impressed—that shit’s old.) Named in honor of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, the library is part Greek temple, part Gothic fantasy. Fluted granite pillars flank an imposing green door studded with brass. Directly in front of the library, set into the overgrown wrought-iron gate, lies an ornately carved fountain with the inscription, “Come hither every one that thirsteth.”

Few Brown students would argue with an invitation like that—not on a Friday night. But the Athenaeum slakes a very different (and for most of us nerds, equally pressing) kind of thirst: a thirst for intellectual stimulation and old-fashioned romance. Unlike Brown’s on-campus libraries, it offers a gorgeous study space and the opportunity to join a community of scholars outside the inescapable “Brown bubble.” Curiously, not many Brown students have noticed that this intellectual kegger is happening next door. If you’ve been missing out, let me fill you in.

When you venture inside the building, expect to marvel at the ambiance. Brown may be too liberal for velvet upholstery, but the Athenaeum is not. Your first thought upon entering is that you ought to have worn your monocle and smoking jacket. Globe-like electric lamps illuminate the high-ceilinged atrium with a soft glow. Bookshelves stretch from floor to ceiling. Two dainty, curved cast-iron staircases connect the ground floor to the upper level. Climb them, and you’ll find antique wooden desks and chairs in small balcony carrels overlooking the main level. Peruse the shelves, and you’ll discover 100-year-old treatises on Blake nestled comfortably against volumes of evolutionary theory. Make your way back down to the first floor and investigate the well-stocked children’s section, replete with soft carpeting and a neon-colored beanbag or two.

Once you’ve browsed to your heart’s content, it’s time to explore the basement level, where literary “salons,” lectures, and poetry readings like the one I attended take place. Compared to the more familiar basements of certain Brown fraternities, it is perhaps lacking somewhat in phat beats and free alcohol—but if you’re willing to make the sacrifice, the luxurious armchairs alone make a visit worth your while. An enormous rose-colored velvet settee under the staircase begs to be lounged on. Broad tables of polished dark wood wait to be covered in manuscripts and dusty tomes.

What kind of crowd could such ambiance possibly fail to attract? The under-50 crowd, apparently. The Athenaeum is too well-kept a secret. On the particular Friday evening that I went with a friend, we were the only two youngsters taking advantage of the lively literary discourse and appreciative audience.

Imagine the scene like this: the furniture is pushed back and waves of wooden chairs face the windows. About 20 or 30 people sit attentively as a small golden bell is rung to signal the commencement of the evening’s festivities. Some have brought poems they have written; others, poems they simply love. All are dressed in their Sunday best, or something close to it. A few are elderly couples, and many seem to be closely acquainted. A genteel, soft-spoken woman strikes up a conversation with me. Her name is Isabelle Pingree—she is the widow of David Pingree, a former math professor at Brown. She will be the first to recite her chosen poem. With a winsome smile, she explains, “I always ask to go first because I’m a coward.”

Mrs. Pingree declaims Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” in a small but dignified voice. In the corner, a middle-aged man in a zip sweater leans against a bookcase with his eyes closed. He mouths every word. At the end, everyone claps and sips their wine (except for us, of course—we’ve never felt more underage). Next, a man gets up, instructs us to compile a list of random words, and leaves the room. After a few minutes he returns and improvises a poem from the list (it includes “passageway,” which he misreads as “pazasquany”). Everyone laughs and applauds. He grins and says apologetically that his spelling sucks—then, with mock horror, asks if he’s “allowed to say ‘sucks’ in the Athenaeum.” Gales of laughter ensue, but I privately wonder whether the bright-eyed mistress of ceremonies will see this as an affront to the solemnity of the occasion. As poem follows poem, a video camera records each recitation for archival on YouTube. The evening ends with a reading from a Chicana tejana feminist lesbian poet—and at last, we Brown students are in familiar territory again!

The patrons and event organizers were eager to get the perspective of us yung ‘uns. When asked why we attended the reading, we explained that we were curious about what the Athenaeum had to offer, particularly since the library is so close to Brown’s campus but seems to attract relatively little notice from students. Christina Bevilacqua, a sophisticated and savvy woman in charge of Member Services, Programs, and Development, was quick to hand me information about the Athenaeum’s latest technological acquisitions: free Wi-Fi, a few Kindles, and an expanding collection of CDs and DVDs. By 2015, the library might even have a few iPads available. The Athenaeum, she explained, is making a concerted effort to expand student membership and create a library that is as user-friendly as it is atmospheric. I was momentarily struck with a horrific vision of an overly “user-friendly” Athenaeum filled with the dull roar of tapping computer keys and vibrating cell phones. I realized, however, that the library is too stubbornly attached to its identity as a guardian of the halls of academia and as a historic Providence landmark for modernization to pose a real threat—yet. If the Athenaeum is able to transition into the 21st century without giving up its delightfully antiquated character, it will prove to be an invaluable resource for Brown students seeking out-of-print material, pleasure reading, literary discourse, or merely a bit of architectural variety.

I headed back up the hill that night with the sense that I had been granted a glimpse of a mysteriously attractive, old-fashioned community, the sort of thing that used to exist in the dining clubs of old white male academics in Wildean period dramas. Yet within this gloriously snooty atmosphere, there was still room for technological innovation and genuine inclusivity. A yearlong membership to the Athenaeum, with full borrowing privileges both there and at the RISD library, along with access to original or signed manuscripts of authors like Poe and Melville, costs only $35. You can bring friends to the weekly Friday salons. You can revel in the antiquated character of the building. You can wear plaid and talk about Proust with a straight face. Brown students would reap enormous academic and cultural benefits from partnering with the Athenaeum, and the library’s programming would be revitalized by the presence of a few fresh faces. Now that the secret is out, it’s time to do something about it.

So go ahead. Indulge your inner nerd (or outer one, as is no doubt the case with many of you). Disavow the oppressive modernity of the SciLi. Embrace the heady romance of Greek Revival architecture and snobby literature. Step out for an evening of intellectual gratification. And don’t forget your beret.