The Stillness of the Library

Clint Morehead - San Diego, California
As heard on This I Believe Podcast, October 30, 2018
Clint Morehead

When Clint Morehead was still in medical school, he often spent upwards of 10 hours a day studying at the library. More important than the aesthetics of the space around him, Morehead finds that libraries provide a valuable place to go—inside himself.

Age Group: 18 - 30
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I believe in studying.

I often find a room in my school’s library that reminds me of a cell in a monastery. The room is white and perfectly still. Here, I move fluidly through my notes, textbook, atlas of human anatomy, and back again, without the distraction of even a breath. For me, studying has become a solitary ritual, but I am not alone. There are other students in identical rooms, heads hinged down, shoulders hovered above fiberglass tables, reading as if they were searching for something elsewhere.

This library was built forty years ago when no architect seemed to care much about aesthetics. The walls and ceilings are a mixture of stones and pieces of shells, stuck together in a sea of gray. A rusted black and yellow sign bolted near the entrance designates it as a fallout shelter. Now, inclement weather is what sounds the sirens and sends the crowds inside. I sometimes hear them from my little room, raise my head from my books, crack the door, and watch as the drenched street dwellers mill among the stacks. After a few minutes, I return and figure out where I left off.

I believe in those rooms. And in libraries. I also believe in kitchens, coffee shops, park benches, and the shade of oak trees. These places allow studying to temporarily remove me from this uncertain, sometimes tragic world. It’s a kind of asylum. When I focus down into my books, the pages are all I see, and my thoughts are all I hear. Everything else disappears. Studying becomes a communion in which I read and assimilate and grow. It steadies me. It flings me back toward myself like a reflection, until I have but one focus: the insightful person I hope to be.

At the end of the day, I return to studying the way one returns home. After dinner, I drive against the flow of traffic back to the library. In my sterile room, I seat myself. It is only me, this simple student, some lecture notes, a couple books, and a pen. The laws of physics are here too, pressing me deep into this cold chair. The world is now silenced. My eyes scan what’s laid before me. Here, in this human embryology text, is an illustration of the primitive structures of the human heart, the bulbus cordis and conus arteriosis. And over there is the adult heart, in full developed form. My eyes shift from one picture to the other. I take more notes, doodle, stare at a blank wall, and let my eyes adjust. Somewhere in all this, a synapse fires. A new pathway forms. So this is how the heart came to be shaped the way it is! But I feel something separate from that. Learning something new is like a small epiphany. I finally get it.

Dr. Clint Morehead was born, raised, and educated in Louisville, Kentucky, and is now a palliative medicine doctor in San Diego, California. His work has been featured in Becoming A Doctor: From Student to Specialist, Doctor-Writers Share Their Experiences (W. W. Norton, 2010), the Louisville Review, and the Journal of Palliative Medicine. He is a 2010 winner of the Al Smith Fellowship for creative nonfiction and founder of The Kentucky Books for Patients Project, an organization that places books by Kentucky authors in cancer centers across the state. He wrote this essay in 2005 as a first-year medical student in Louisville.