In Praise of Libraries and Night Herons

Recently a new library facility has opened in my neighborhood in Tokyo. It is five stories tall, full of windows and terraces, ample workspace with plugs for laptops, children’s play areas, space for older school-age kids, tables for eating, reading nooks. There is wifi. There is an small, interesting selection of books in non-Japanese languages (but strangely almost nothing in Korean or Chinese, which is shameful.) I’ve been coming almost every day to write. In the past few years, I mostly squandered the ‘freedom’ of graduate student life to do my work when and where I pleased. Squandered in the sense of not getting as much work done as I probably should have, squandered in the sense that there were countless mornings wiled away in trying to figure out where I should go. Sometimes I would try to be adventurous and go to an area I’d never been before, only to get out of the train station to find it, on the surface, the same as any other place that I’d been in Tokyo, except for I couldn’t find any chain coffeeshops to settle in for my working day. Recalling all these train trips and walks from stations in search of somewhere I felt like working, I feel again the heaviness of my always overloaded backpack. Not only was usually unable to decide where to work, I was mostly unable to decide what I was working on that day, and thus I carried many books with me at all times, just in case. This is an old habit of mine. In college I was profiled in the student newspaper for a weekly column called “That Girl!” or “That guy!” depending on the week. Readers were informed they could find me on campus as “the girl carrying the most stuff.” I’m still carrying too much stuff every day, but now it’s on a five minute bicycle ride to the local library, and I can put much of it in the basket.

I like working in my local library for so many reasons. I love my academic library here in Tokyo, but I’m always wandering off to look at their insane collection of very old books. Certainly there’s a time for that, and I’ve definitely become a historian because of my love for the ephemera of the past, but right now is a time for sticking to my desk and writing about what I already have. I like how easy it is to go to the same place every day. I like learning about the people who live in my neighborhood and also frequent the library. I like that this library has space for everyone in the community, from the very young to the very old.

Yesterday morning I read this online version of a talk that the artist Jenny Odell gave recently. It is called “how to do nothing.” It’s about work, and how the idea of work has changed along with technology, about allowing yourself to be in a specific place and to really get to know that place. Jenny Odell lives and works in the Bay Area, it seems. She writes about a rose garden in Oakland she goes to, and the bird life she has gotten to know in her neighborhood. There are lots of roses in my neighborhood in Tokyo, because the local tram line (the last extant tram line in Tokyo, actually) plants roses along the tracks, and in parks near certain stops. I enjoy these roses almost every day. Across the street from the new library is a nature park, full of roses and other plants, a pond with a swan. To get there I walk through another park, a sculpture park in front of city hall, which has a small pond for fishing. This park is popular with people who sit at the pond with fishing poles, and with the old guys playing go and Chinese chess. Occasionally water birds will make an appearance at the fishing pond, elegant long-necked creatures wading slowly through the murk. But a night, a different type of water bird sometimes appears. Hunched up, kind of awkward, almost immovable looking. I only ever saw them at night, and I laughed when I finally learned that they were called “night herons.” The night herons in Oakland seem ok with showing their face in the light.  I wonder where the Tokyo night herons spend their days?

I loved Jenny Odell’s piece. I’ve written a few draft blog posts over the past few weeks that have surprised me with how angry I sound. I’m ok with anger, but I’d like to write about things I like too. I like birds, I like doing nothing, I like surprising feeling of actually enjoying a post. I’ll close with a little quote within a quote from Jenny Odell’s piece:

I found this necessity of doing nothing so perfectly articulated in a passage from Gilles Deleuze in Negotiations:

…we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. (emphasis mine)

He wrote that in 1985, but the sentiment is something I think we can all identify with right now, almost to a degree that’s painful. The function of nothing here, of saying nothing, is that it’s a precursor to something, to having something to say. “Nothing” is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.

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