Back to the Countway

17 June 2021 | 11 Minutes

After living in the United States for fifteen years or so, I’ve decided to move back to Australia for a while. When my friends ask me about it, I explain that my niece in South East Queensland – who is roughly the same age as my eldest daughter – likes to recreationally catch pigeons with her bare hands.

Apparently we have to hide ladders from her, or she’ll be up on the roof. You know. Catching pigeons.

Now, as her uncle, I’m obviously tremendously proud of her, but I’m also vaguely unsettled. It seems inevitable that my daughters are going to start catching pigeons any day now. And we’ve been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so can you even imagine the parent-teacher meetings? I don’t present well in parent-teacher meetings in the best of circumstances. The teachers can’t seem to tell if I’m being serious. And I can never tell if they are.

My point here is that when people ask me why I’m moving back to Australia, I invariably tell them about my niece and say something about how my own kids might start catching pigeons any day now. Then I add something like: “The thing about teachers in Australia is that they have a bit more experience when it comes to dealing with Australian kids.”

Well, it’s part of the reason. The rest of it is slightly more complex to explain. And besides, I don’t feel wildly excited about this decision. About a month or so ago, right before my eye surgery, a doctor I was speaking with turned to a nurse and said: ‘Will you listen to that accent? He speaks so beautifully – I can’t tire of listening to it’.

I exhaled with gratitude. “Thanks man. In a few months I’ll be back in Queensland, and when I open my mouth there, people will just nod and think to themselves, ‘Oh look, another townie’.”

I’m probably moving to the Redcliffe Penninsula, though I’d probably rather move to rural Japan. My daughter, Boudicca, keeps talking about wanting to be a ninja when she grows up. Obviously I’m encouraging her. Having a ninja for a daughter would be pretty good, and also bad news for my enemies. Naturally, I’ve cautioned her that the real money is in ‘running the Ninja Clan’, and not being a lowly footsoldier – but she’s only seven, so give her time and she’ll figure it out, I reckon.

Anyway, my point is that, despite some hefty reservations, we’re going back to Australia. And that’s that, I suppose.

Meanwhile, we’re still here in suburban Detroit, Michigan (in the United States). Last week, though, I flew back to Boston for a few days to take care of some last minute business-y stuff. On Thursday, I found myself over near the Longwood Medical Area, right by Harvard Medical School. I had some time on my hands so I strolled over to the library to see if it was open.

I hadn’t been there since before Covid. I rarely go back these days. Makes me feel a bit sad and wistful. The Countway is one of Harvard’s seventy or so libraries, but noteworthy for being the main library at Harvard Medical School. What’s the Countway like? Well, in my remarkably funny and underrated novel, The Harvard Skull Fiasco, I describe it like this:

If, somewhere in this galaxy, there is an evil alien civilization that exists only to inflict misery and suffering on all forms of life, then I suspect that their courthouses, prisons, torture chambers, slave pits, poison distilleries, chemical weapons plants, abattoirs, and insurance companies would all, in some way, resemble the Countway Library of Medicine. I don’t know where the architect’s childhood went wrong, but my guess is that he suffered terribly at the hands of terrorists…

It goes on like that for a few more pages. There’s one bit I quite like, where I point out that you can tell the Vatican is no longer at the top of its game because a cabal of priests hadn’t burned the building to the ground.

A fairly restrained description of the Countway’s reality. You see, the library is rumoured to be cursed. Some say it’s because the skull of Phineas Gage is exhibited in a cabinet on the fifth floor, but I won’t comment on that because I have reason to suspect that some miscreant stole the skull about a decade ago, and what you’re seeing in the museum these days is a synthetic reproduction. I literally wrote a book about it.

The Countway is a quirky sort of place. When I first started working there in 2005, the librarians seemed to be going a bit potty. It was like they’d all been stuck aboard a submarine for one too many decades.

There was a pervasive feeling of anxiety around me. Turns out, the library occupies some prime academic real estate on that campus. It’s situated right next door to Gordon Hall – the administrative nerve center, where the bigwigs live – and also the famous Harvard School of Public Health.

No wonder the librarians were spooked. A single glance at a campus map reveals that the Countway is the perfect location for a multi-level parking garage for Harvard faculty.

Then there’s the other problem: the library always seems so empty. The stacks are concealed behind the walls of an unnecessarily vast atrium. The first time I entered the building, I had to ask the security guard if I was in the right place. And I am not the only person who will tell you that!

At first glance, there is nothing remotely libraryish about the Countway. You enter what appears to be an empty box, framed with dull beige walls and a few old paintings. It’s no surprise that many of the staff and students at Harvard Medical School assume that nobody even visits the library anymore.

Naturally this made the librarians feel defensive. Office space at the Medical School is a hot commodity. Any given floor of the library might offer the administration hundreds of millions of dollars in annual grant money. To anyone working in higher education who lacks a soul, a library is, at best, a vacant building waiting to be repurposed.

Now, I don’t know who first floated the idea of installing a café in the Countway, but I do know that it upset a good many people. And when you think about it, it is a somewhat feeble way to monetize a university department that fundamentally cannot be monetized. My guess is that some manager envisioned being able to stand next to a graph and say something like, ‘Good news! Foot traffic into the library is up by 21% this quarter!’

But as I was saying, the thought of a café in their library made many of the staff uneasy. Did I mention the Countway could probably win awards for having the best acoustics of any library on Earth? Sorry, let me back up. The Countway could win awards – you know what? Nevermind, I think the real reason is that the librarians were a bit worn out from the constant strain of having to feign enthusiasm for really bad ideas.

It’s tough to be a librarian, remember; they don’t have MBAs, so they receive precious little training on how to deal with powerful idiots.

The other thing is that most of them are uncomfortably aware that if libraries were invented today, they’d be outlawed immediately. Publishing companies would lose their minds. They’d form an international cartel, devoted to the The Noble Task of Protecting Copyright. After a few years it’s possible that something vaguely resembling libraries might emerge. For a monthly subscription fee, one might access a limited range of books and periodicals, though you’d need to subscribe to six different services, obviously. It would be a real pain in the neck.

Underground librarians in Nicaragua would fight extradition to the United States, where they might face decades of imprisonment due to the ‘unauthorised distribution of copyrighted materials’. Frankly, I think we should all be amazed that libraries are still permitted to exist.

But I see that I have digressed. Remember me mentioning, somewhere above, that the Countway is rumoured to be cursed? Well, the tale is cyclical. It has no beginning and no end, though usually the cycle starts with the appointment of an enthusiastic new library director who – for reasons I’m unable to explain – makes it their first task to renovate their office. I don’t mean change the furnishings; I mean they move walls and ceilings.

One of my friends, who had worked in the Countway for several decades, explained it to me like this:

“Every few years, they appoint a new director. He or she enters the building, looks around and says – no, no! All this must be changed! And then, builders run in and start tearing out walls and ripping up the floor. The library becomes a noisy place, filled with the echoes of construction.

“A few years pass, and several tens of millions of dollars later,” my friend alleges, “that library director is shoved out” – in what I imagine looks like a confetti-like cloud of contractor receipts – “and then a brand new director appears. He or she looks at the recently finished renovations in dismay. “No, no! All this must be changed! And this office needs to be at least four square meters wider …”

This is all sort of grimly amusing, even to an underpaid librarian whose department has been temporarily short-staffed for the past decade or so, due to ‘regrettable but necessary budget cuts’.

And what does all this mean? It means that it’s really strange that I was the first person in the world to write a satire of Harvard University. Was it satire, or was it, as my former colleague described it, a bit of light journalism? Don’t ask me. I typically have difficulty determining objective truth from my version of it, ie. the fiction I write. (And if my version of the truth sounds like parody, that means my truth is protected speech, Harvard lawyers! Shakes fist!)

My perspective may be skewed by a general inability to take institutions seriously, which verges on an actual disorder. So remember, you should take everything that I write on the subject of ‘highly litigious institutions’ as being ‘for the purpose of entertainment only’. Receive my words with a hefty grain of salt. I am probably wildly exaggerating. I have a peculiar tendency to write fiction, and besides: who would you believe, anyway? Me – or a four hundred year-old institution that is financially vested in ensuring that you take its brand seriously?

Remember, I’m an unreliable narrator with a troubled imagination, as well as some fairly controversial opinions on the subject of geese. Don’t believe me – believe Harvard’s press releases.

With that legal disclaimer aside, I can continue. If you’ve read my books, you’ll know that the protagonist is, among other things, working to prevent the Harvard administration from installing a café in the Countway library. In my book, Wendell (the Circulation Desk manager) eventually confides that he started that rumour as a joke, adding uneasily, “Then the whole thing got way out of hand…”

He’s right. Rumours can get out of hand. Imagine some innocent librarian gets dragged into a lunch meeting, where she’s asked if she has any ideas how to monetize the library. Sheepishly, she recalls some gossip she overheard at the Circ Desk.

“Uh, maybe we could put a café in the foyer?”

Incidentally, here’s a picture of the brand new café in the foyer of the Countway Library of Medicine. It’s almost ready for the public!

The Countway Library of Medicine

It’s not that I prophesied the café’s arrival in my novel; rumours began roughly sixteen years ago. But in my opinion, the idea was so implausible that it was bound to happen sooner or later.

Alright. Maybe you’re thinking that a café in a library isn’t all that silly. Fair enough. But, just so you know, the café is located right at the library entrance, where the Circulation Desk would normally be – ie. where patrons check out books. So, where is the Circulation Desk now?

It’s in the basement.

You see my predicament as a satirist? Well, nevermind. In a few years, there’ll be a new library director and the café will have moved to the basement, the Circulation Desk will be on the roof and Harvard will spend tens of millions of dollars rearranging it all again.

On the other hand, perhaps I am gifted with a talent for prophecy. Maybe I do have a gift for anticipating the manoeuvres of well-established bureaucracies. Either way, I’m feeling rattled. Remember how I wrote a book about an Australian guy who steals the skull of Phineas Gage from the museum in that building?

Well, what’s going to happen when the skull of Phineas Gage gets stolen from its cabinet on the fifth floor? Is it too soon to start a GoFundMe for my legal defense?

And so – on a completely different subject altogether – I’m off to Australia. Why? No reason. No, wait – I had something for this. Ninjas. And my daughters possibly catching pigeons.

In the meantime, don’t forget that if you haven’t read my novels, you’ve been missing out. And if you have read ’em, please take a moment to review them at Amazon. Even just rating them would help me a lot. Every rating helps.

Until next time, I remain yours – with a slight degree of unease,

Kris St.Gabriel

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