The Library

A walk in the wet tar, in the rain, with my shoes and socks soaked through, and the brown furrows of rice fields drenched in mirrors—the vast cement hospital rising like a neo-Wagnerian castle out of its upside-down double, interrupted by a few rolls of sallow hay, scraps of blue tarps, shark-chewed husks of stained styrofoam. Few sidewalks on this walk. Much danger & discomfort.

In a special sort of room on the library’s first floor, beyond the beeping security turnstiles and the computers which you use, with your ID, to check out a specific chair in any one of a number of enormous reading rooms—bare, practical, fluorescent, uncomfortable affairs, guaranteed to leave you with an aching neck and back if you stay for too long—but in this special room, I sit for over three and a half hours, and write. I have not explored the stacks. I don’t even know where they are.

Other students work with me. There are just four long tables in this room, with a total of about forty carrel spaces with computer seats that just kind of keep leaning back with you, if you try to recline. It is apparently a desirable place to work; in the afternoon I see several students walk in, search quietly for a chair that is not next to the sole white person in the building, and then walk out, concluding that the place is full. Numerous spots are occupied by books and jackets which no one ever comes to claim.

The penned graffiti is instructive: someone has written the Chinese characters for the university, but in place of Dong, “East”, this person drew a pile of shit, because the Korean word for shit, dong, sounds exactly the same as the word for east. There are initials locked inside hearts, Korean declarations that so-and-so has studied here for twelve hours, and English proclamations—always strange, never correct—recommending like Boxer that you work harder. “Keep the faith, life is wild ride!”

As for the animate, a few young women cannot sit still and seem to come to this room so that they can walk in and out at the behest of their cellphones; some students are studious, others are enslaved to these devices; two annoying young men constantly whisper to each other even though, as always in Korea, there are signs everywhere informing them that they are behaving inconsiderately. Everyone is hunched over textbooks. Everyone. A number of older people are among their numbers. A head gleaming bald above a carrel, like an egg perched on a wooden nest.

I once saw what may have been a professor annoying her colleagues by leaving the room several times in the space of a few minutes to offer them unrequested paper cups full of the sugar water that sometimes passes for coffee here. A girl I knew when I was young always gave everyone she knew huge amounts of candy because she wanted them to like her; I remember being mean to her, ganging up on her like everyone else.

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