An Oasis in the Desert: Why Libraries Are the Best Places to Write

It’s 2015. My partner and I are in Moab, Utah, for the summer, far from our home of Philadelphia. He is doing research for his dissertation. I am struggling to rewrite a novel that my editor says—and I agree—isn’t working.

The desert landscape in southwest Utah is magnificent and to us wholly alien, we who have spent our lives in the eastern United States. I feel like I’m on another planet, which is somehow comforting. I cannot seem to sort out my novel on this planet, why not try another? The deep red rock, the shapes they make—skinny spires, soaring buttes, tumbling arches—like gymnasts or dancers, doing with their bodies the impossible.

The canyon rocks, both ancient and dynamic. Sunlight moving across their surfaces, illuminating their many moods and faces: one moment angry; the next gentle and warm, like a mother’s kiss; the next, mysterious as a heart-shaped valentine from a secret admirer. The smell of juniper and sage. And the sky! What to say about that enormous, glorious, desert sky!

As is my habit when I’m somewhere new, I want to check out the public library. Perhaps more than any other place, public libraries, to me, are home. For decades, my mother was a public librarian in West Virginia. I grew up in that library. Browsing its shelves, I found books that opened the world to me: an anthology of poems by children experiencing houselessness, the diaries of Andy Warhol, the novels of Bharati Mukherjee, and then, when I most needed it, a collection of short stories by queer men.

Over the decades, I’ve often written in libraries. Working a soulless office job in midtown Manhattan in my twenties, I scarfed down my lunch at the foot of the Gertrude Stein statue in Bryant Park and then slid around to the front of the library, marched up the stairs between the lions and into the Rose Main Reading Room with my notebook and pen.

Gazing up at the ornately carved and painted ceilings, I was reminded there is something bigger, something more. I felt the same when I was living in western New York State and would write at the stately David A. Howe Library in Wellsville, New York, a vestige of a more prosperous time in what is now a struggling region.

I know that my path, as difficult as it may sometimes seems, is lit by ancient and unknowable stars.

Portions of my new poetry collection—Feeding the Ghosts—were written at the Lovett branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia and in the warm and welcoming reading room at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, not a library but still a space packed with books, a safe and sacred place.

Public libraries are special: one of the few places one is allowed to exist without being expected to spend money. On my first trip to India, I was shocked to learn that libraries there are, for the most part, private. You have to pay. You have to belong.

Back to 2015 and my mess of a novel draft. In Moab, the library is airy, light. I quickly find myself seated at a carrel near a wall of windows, and this becomes my sanctuary for the next two months. Like other public libraries, this one has a hodgepodge of visitors and patrons: local parents with their children, the unhoused, tourists in town for the river rafting or to visit Arches National Park, people looking for books or newspapers or free Wi-Fi or just somewhere to escape the oppressive desert heat and sun for an hour or two.

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But in my carrel, I forget about the other people. Each day I set it up. I put up my many sticky notes. I arrange totemic items: a rock, a feather, a dried desert flower. I place on the shelf my small bronze statue of Ganesh, remover of obstacles, dancing Ganesh, my favorite of all Ganeshes. And then I write. And I stare out the window. And I browse the shelves and read a random passage from whatever books I’ve plucked (maybe something by Banana Yoshimoto, Wallace Stegner, or Kelly Link). And I write some more. After some hours, I disassemble my carrel, pack up, drop my stuff at our summer rental, and head into the canyons with my dog. We walk and walk and walk. I love this part. My novel falls away. The world opens up. It is the same but different as the way the world opens up in the library, when I am immersed in literature, surrounded by ideas and stories and experiences and writers’ voices.

At the carrel, with my novel and surrounded by books, writing feels like the Most Important Thing in the World. In the canyons, writing feels like the Thing That Doesn’t Matter At All. I strive to hold both of these truths at the same time. Writing in Moab that summer showed me what that can feel like.

Books and tress. Public libraries and public land. Carrels and canyons. Carved ceilings and endless sky.

Now, when I’m at my best, I am able to remember this. I remember to balance time writing in my metaphorical (sometimes literal) carrel with walks in the woodland of my beloved Wissahickon Valley Park. The landscape is very different than that of southwest Utah, the creek just a whisper compared to the roar of the Colorado River, and dull grey schist instead of bright red rock. Still, the schist is mica-flecked and in the right light, and if I am paying attention, I can see it sparkle, and I know that my path, as difficult as it may sometimes seems, is lit by ancient and unknowable stars.


feeding the ghosts

Feeding the Ghosts: Poems by Rahul Mehta is available from University Press of Kentucky.

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