The Rock’s Strange Beauty

What you wouldn’t expect to find in this concrete monolith

Just before dusk, the Rock rises up like an awkwardly-layered cake, its vertical windows mismatched and its stories unevenly stacked. Along with its dingy concrete walls, the Rock is—let’s face it—not one of Brown’s great architectural beauties. But through the slitted windows leaks a warm yellow glow and, if you stop for a moment before continuing up the steps, bookshelves and wooden study tables appear like pieces of a mosaic.

I was well into my Brown career before I began to meander through the Rock’s labyrinthine corridors. Comb through a few of the aisles, pause to look at the titles, and some are sure to beg the question: has anyone read ever read these? There is an entire treasury of forgotten and bizarre knowledge to be discovered.

On Level B, there’s a shelf with books that look like they’ve come from a Harry Potter movie. They are beautifully bound, intricate golden patterns tattooing their spines. The titles range from Oeuvres Complète de Gustave Flaubert to Affairs of the Levant, Vol. 2, 1840-1841, to Journal of the Statistical Society.

Four rows past this one, Aisle 51 transports you back to medieval Britain, where Chaucer’s works lie. One aisle later lurches forward to Shakespeare; two more and there’s Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre resting on the top shelf.

At Aisle 60, things get weird. There’s a whole section of books, organized not by country, not by language, not by time period, but by United State. When I first stumbled upon this bizarre gem, I realized that there is an entire subgenre of literature centered around the Ozarksa mountain region in the central U.S.—whose books boast titles like Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales. There’s also an entire book dedicated to the pioneering literature of Kentucky, and it wears the title proudly: Bluegrass Calvacade (a calvacade, which I’m not sure anyone except whoever edited the book has ever heard of, is “a procession of riders or carriages,” according to Merriam Webster). A couple shelves below sits Island on Fire: An Anthology of Literature from Hawaii.

Over at 64B, one shelf sports a little bit of extra space between bookends. Someone’s checked out Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, a charming little tale about Tristran Thorn, a protagonist who, in a fantastical coming-of-age tale, sets out on a quest to find a fallen star–which turns out to be not a ball of fire at all but a spunky young woman. Go figure.

To the right of the floor door, a metallic bookshelf rests against the wall, face open to the room. It holds books that don’t necessarily fit in the regularly-sized stacks, and their titles juxtapose in funny ways: there’s one that is simply called Google It—which begs the question of why the publishers printed this particular book at all—and another has a much longer title, A Catalogue of the Greek Manuscripts of the Patriarchate of Bulgaria, I.

At the end of the aisles, there’s a series of journals labelled “World Futures,” a number of whose volumes date back to the 1980s. Which brings up the inevitable question: how accurate were these histories of the future, anyway? In one 1983 journal, someone named John Dryzek wrote this: “In recent decades we have made great strides in our capacity to eradicate ourselves from the planet Earth.” It’s strange to find this in an essay that’s actually meant to guide policy decisions and, although Dryzek is not exactly wrong, it still seems possible that he is currently holed up in a bomb shelter somewhere, sitting among decades-worth of canned soup.

But never mind Dryzek’s fate. Back into the elevator and up on Level 3, the metal doors slide open to reveal a floor set up in much the same way as Level B. Around the corner and against the wall is a hidden gem: a series of thin, horizontal shelves, each holding one book that is roughly the size of a small bulletin board. This is the atlas section, and it has everything from the National Atlas of India I–with pages and pages of colorful, detailed maps—to the U.S. War Department’s Union and Confederate Armies Official Records Atlas, v. 2. Flip through the latter and you’ll find maps of Civil War battle sites and defenses, as well as sketches of batteries and forts. There’s also a big folder labelled Olympische Forschungen, which translates roughly to “Olympic Sciences”—inside are drawings that appear to be based on Greek architecture.

One more stop: taking a right after the atlas section and walking a short ways down the aisle leads to a section that abounds with Arabic literature. Unless you can read Arabic, many of the titles here are incomprehensible, but there are translated editions. There’s one particular shelf with works by the revered Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who was an important literary and political figure in the second half of the 20th century. In one of his collections, Why did you leave the horse alone?, his words brim with themes of love, exile, myth, war:

“Your poetry has no homeland. The wind has no home. I have no / Ceiling in the chandelier of your heart. / From a smiling lilac around your night / I find my way alone through alleys as thin as hair.” (from “For the Gypsy, and Experienced Sky”).

Having inhaled Darwish’s delicate words, you can now find your way through the alleys of the Rock and back to the exit on the first floor. As you step outside and breathe in the air, the fresh emptiness cuts your lungs—because you’ve just stumbled through the beautiful clutter of Everything and held in your hands a very few dusty pieces of the world.

That about sums up why I love the Rock. There’s an extraordinary library at your fingertips. Go explore it.