On 15 April 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. Among the passengers was Harry Elkins Widener, a young Harvard graduate on his way home from Europe. To honor his memory, his mother gave 3.5 million dollars to his alma mater to build the Harry Elkins Widener Library. Widener sits on the southern edge of Harvard Yard, its rear backing on Massachusetts Avenue and its majestic flight of marble stairs looking across the central quadrangle of Harvard Yard to Memorial Church, where, on 9 June 1962, Cynthia Griffin and I were married.
When I arrived at Harvard in September 1950 as a sixteen year old Freshman, Widener was the center of the Harvard world. Entering the front doors, one climbed broad stairs to a landing halfway to the second floor, where there was a room that memorialized Mrs. Widener's son. If you entered the room instead turning and continuing on, a lady rose from her chair and began, in a singsong voice, "Harry loved his books..." On the second floor, running the entire north side of the library, was the enormous Reading Room. To the right was a much smaller room housing the entire card catalogue of the library -- bank on bank of narrow oblong drawers filled with little cards. You could slide out a wooden support, flip through the cards in a tray until you found your book, write down the number on a call slip with one of the stubby pencils provided, and then present the slip at the big arced desk to one of the librarians. Much more satisfying was to show your Harvard ID card and be admitted through a narrow door to the stacks themselves. There could be found every book ever published, or so it seemed to a young man fresh from Forest Hills High School. It was in that card catalogue room, on November 22 1963, that I was looking through a tray when I noticed several people gathered at the librarian's desk whispering agitatedly. When I drew near to find out what was up, I learned that the President had been shot in Dallas.
Widener was imposing, forbidding, massive and not completely welcoming to undergraduates. In 1949, the year before I first entered Harvard Yard, a brand new library had been opened in the Southeast corner of the Yard catering to undergraduates. Lamont Library was low and modern with large glass windows and blond wood that reminded me of my parents' dining room set. One of its most attractive innovations was a room in which one could listen to records checked out from the library's huge collection. [Younger readers of this blog will simply have to accept it on faith that there was a time, within the personal memory of some who are still alive, when one did not have all literature, film, art, and music on one's pocket phone.]
One of my favorites was a recording of a new play by Christopher Fry, The Lady's Not For Burning, a romantic comedy in verse set in late medieval England. The central character is Thomas Mendip, played on the recording by a young John Gielgud. I recall only one line from the play. Early in the first act Thomas reports that when he entered the town, "the moon was gibbous and in a high state." I was in those days a hopelessly romantic young man, and that play spoke to me as no other with which I was familiar.
All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying that when I stepped out of my condominium building this morning to take my daily four mile walk, I looked up and saw that the moon was gibbous and in a high state.