Thursday, May 07, 2009


art, books, and bliss

I had a lovely day visiting in Brunswick with my sister Emily last week. She lives near Bowdoin College, and we spent some time walking around visiting her favorite spots on campus. The Bowdoin Museum of Art has an exhibit right now called New York Cool (an appropriate play on words re New York School artists and writers), and one of the best things there is a collaborative series by artist Norman Bluhm and poet Frank O'Hara - abstract gouaches with poem fragments written in to complement them. I also love the immense Helen Frankenthaler painting, a big target painting by Kenneth Noland (who I don't usually respond to in a positive way, particularly, but this one has real presence and even beauty in it), a vibrant abstract Robert Goodnough painting that reminds me of nothing as much as shelves of books, and a big black Louise Nevelson sculpture that gives me chills and makes me think of the phrase dark matter. Lots to see there, some great, some not so much - the show is up through mid-July.

Next we wandered over to Hubbard Hall, the original library building. Em wanted to show me a room there. Unfortunately the room was closed, but the good news is we could peek through portholes in the double doors and see inside anyway. And what a room it is! The Susan Dwight Bliss Room, which houses the Susan Dwight Bliss Collection of Fine Bindings, among other things. Including antique French walnut woodwork and a sixteenth-century ceiling from a Neapolitan palazzo. Sigh. Truly a booklover's fantasy library come to life, and come to rest in Maine.

That was all very nice, but what really stopped me in my tracks was what I saw and read upon first entering the building. We didn't then know Hubbard Hall was the old library (the books are now housed elsewhere except for a few special collections), but we surmised as much when we read a large stone plaque on the wall in the entryway, which states the following:

"Books are not absolutely dead things but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are. / Who reads and reads / and does not what / he knows / is one that ploughs / and ploughs / and never sows."

The accompanying plaque reads, in part:

"This hall dedicated to truth and to books as the depositaries and teachers of truth is a gift to Bowdoin College from Thomas H. Hubbard Class of 1857 and his Wife..."

Reminders of some things we love (books, truth...). Then we walked across the quad and looked up at the window of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's room, when he was a student here. A small plaque on the exterior wall identifies it. And next, the sunlight through the stained-glass windows in the chapel, and some magnolias in flower on the way home. A day of art and books and sympathetic conversation. Bliss-full.


A colleague of mine is taking a position as a visiting assistant professor at Bowdoin this fall. A part of me is jealous and your post just adds to that!

My wife and sons and I visited Bowdoin years ago and learned a lot about polar expeditions. Now I have new set of things to see.

Dan, the polar museum is in Hubbard Hall, too... quite a building! Brunswick is a cool town - good restaurants, lots of events at the college, etc. Soon you will be able to take the train there from Boston, and vice versa - the train station is half-built right now, downtown. Thanks for your comments, as always -
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