Recollections of Yale, across the decades. Send your own memories to be considered for posting to, with subject line “For Memories.”
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Light, truth, and Peter Rabbit

In the spring of 2014, I stood at our college reunion, in the Timothy Dwight courtyard, under a gigantic tent shielding us from the pounding rain. A friend asked how I’d describe my quintessential experience as an undergrad. Intense adolescent relationships that evolved into lifelong friendships? An education founded on insatiable curiosity? Professors whose lectures moved me to tears? All true. But for me, more than any one of those, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library captured the essence of my four years at Yale.

I wandered into Beinecke as a freshman, unhinged by my first set of midterms, looking for a quiet place to regroup. The cold was sharp for a Californian, and I hurried along Wall Street, avoiding the more populated Elm. I glanced to the right and found myself facing an odd structure, strangely beautiful. I had passed by several times, but this time I stopped.

To this day, I’ve never seen anything as compelling as Beinecke. The walls are white marble squares—thick, strong, bizarrely translucent. The level of humidity, the placement of the sun, and the density of the clouds all guide the light through the marble, a canvas always quivering, shifting, alive. Grays, browns, and whites interweave with hints of yellows and pinks, a spectrum simultaneously limited and infinite. Shapes created by the light chase each other through the marble blocks, changing as a breeze repositions a cloud, a ray of sun gives way to a shadow—designs born of the unpredictable.

The center of the library is a gigantic pillar, encased in clear glass, holding several soaring levels of rare books and manuscripts. Hundreds of thousands of works. Written history. Yours, mine, ours. Inspiring, riveting, oddly comforting.

The surrounding area, open to the public, holds several glass cases, each with a rare book or manuscript. On that reunion weekend, I was greeted by two Gutenberg Bibles. I then moved on to Beatrix Potter, Alice In Wonderland, and maps of the “100 Aker Wood” from The World Of Pooh. I admired manuscripts from San Francisco and Marseilles, and smiled in surprise at a case of pages covered in startlingly bright silk, crimson, and royal blue.

This weird and wonderful place captures my college experience—a time of  compatible juxtapositions. Clunky blocks of impenetrable rock with light effortlessly flowing through. A Gutenberg Bible companionably next to Peter Rabbit. Serious and playful. Respectful and lighthearted. Reverent and fun. Beinecke makes no sense whatsoever, and somehow reinstates meaning and truth.

Beinecke and I met 38 years ago at a personal low point for me. Crushed and demoralized, I wondered if my career at Yale would end with those first exams. But it didn’t. I figured out how to take a test. I discovered I enjoyed writing papers. I stopped worrying that I was the most pathetic specimen ever to be admitted. I learned and struggled and learned more. Over time, I forgot to be afraid when I struggled. I had fun. I returned to Beinecke possibly 30 times during those four years, through ups and downs, calms and storms, disappointments and triumphs. 

I don’t remember the exhibit on display when I first entered. I don’t remember the precise palette of light on Beinecke’s walls that day. I do remember my amazement. Even more, I remember that as I journeyed around the second floor, my curiosity returned and with it, confidence followed by perspective. Yale and I were a new relationship. We were off to a rocky start, but we had four years to work it out.

And we did.

Amy Kaufman Burk ’80 is a novelist and blogger in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve the Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay boys bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, is about a rookie psychology intern, who grew up in the film industry, treating her first patient, who grew up in the circus. Before becoming an author, Amy was a psychotherapist for 25 years.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Class of 1980, 1980s

1 comment

  • Hope Dellon '74
    Hope Dellon '74, 10:30pm May 28 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    In 1972 I transferred to Yale as a junior in Branford. I thought Branford was beautiful and Sterling magnificent, but Beinecke--with the light glowing through the marble on those gorgeous old books, including that Gutenberg Bible--was magical to me.

    A few weeks into the school year, I went to Commons for lunch because the Branford dining room was closed to install some new equipment. I didn't know too many people then, but a fellow Branford junior and I recognized each other (more or less: I thought his name was Carl, when it really was Charlie Schwartz).

    Charlie was pre-med and earnest, with a beard and an army jacket and work boots; he was living as a volunteer in the New Haven Halfway House and not particularly dazzled by Yale. Over lunch, when I started to babble about the glories of Beinecke, he was disapproving. It was too extravagant, he said; all that money would have been better spent on the poor of New Haven. We sat in Commons arguing about it for about two hours.

    We were married in 1980. Last year, when we went back for our 40th reunion, we visited Beinecke together. This time he agreed it was magical.

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