My New Year’s resolution for 2019 was simple: read twenty-five books for pleasure. I figured I wouldn’t put off the weight, and this was a more reasonable goal. I put off the weight anyway.
But December 1st came along, and I was five books short. So, in panic, I contacted a former professor in search of recommendations. I lazily digested the synopses from the list he sent me and settled on Ruth Ozecki’s A Tale for the Time Being.
After deciding not to purchase the book an Amazon — a bad habit, but one not worth the luggage fees at Heathrow — I decided to borrow a copy from one of UCL’s 20 libraries. A quick search later, and the library page informs me that A Tale for the Time Being is housed in UCL’s Ear Institute Library. This is where I should have spotted several red flags. First, the irony of not having heard of the Ear Institute. Second, the fact that it did not show up on Google Maps. And third, if the Ear Institute Library presumably housed medical texts, then what in the seven hells was 21st century fiction doing there? But I digress, for I trusted the reputably handy library search engine, appropriately titled “Explore.” So I did.
I set out to find the text, and eventually made my way to a plain looking building twenty minutes outside campus. It was, despite the giant model ear gracing the window front, the sort of building you would otherwise walk straight past without ever looking into. Doctors and architects would certainly make a happy marriage.
I soon spot a small UCL sign outside the main entrance, and figured I found the right place. A small note pointed me towards the reception desk, where the receptionist informed me that there was no library at the Ear Institute. Initially confused, and despaired that my trip was for nothing, I was relieved when a second receptionist corrected her colleague, noting that there was in fact an Ear Institute Library, and that it was not housed at the Ear Institute at all, but rather in the Ear, Nose, and Throat hospital just next door.
I took the second receptionist at her word, and approached her counterpart in the neighboring building, who finally confirmed the existence of a library in what appeared to be an oddly quiet hospital. She pointed me to a side door, and instructed me to walk to the end of the hallway, turn right, and make my way down the set of stairs.
As I began down the corridor, I immediately felt uneasy. It looked like a hospital. It certainly smelled like one. But where were the doctors? Where were the patients? The nurses? Technicians? Why were all the doors closed? I mean, I know the UK National Health Service is strange by American standards (to their benefit financially, to their detriment by virtually any other measure.) The GPs don’t work weekends. Pharmacies close early. I wouldn’t be surprised if every Friday at 5 PM, your British boss asked you turn your phone back on, and set your pacemaker to do not disturb mode for the weekend. Britons don’t fall ill on the weekends. After all, Sunday is the Lord’s day of rest. What excuse could you have for not following suit?
I made my way down the stairs to what I feared would prove my ultimate peril, only to have my suspicions and fears confirmed: the hospital was totally and completely abandoned. Defunct. A metal grate pulled three-quarters of the way down barricaded what might have once been a helpful reception desk. Boxes lay everywhere, filled to the brim with old paperwork. Filing cabinets that would likely never be opened again lined the walls. Someone with a more flexible moral code would have had a field day. It felt like discovering a new map in a Call of Duty game: intact, but desolate. War-torn. Sure enough, I noticed two women standing at the beginning of an off-shooting hallway whose end was out of sight. I was only 80% sure they weren’t the ghosts of former patients. I hesitated to approach, but then I considered the position I was in: I was alone, in a hospital that wasn’t a hospital, looking for a library that did not appear to exist. What harm could there be in asking for help?
One of the women was taking pictures of the empty former lobby space behind her when I approached. She informed me that the hospital had recently moved (I did not know hospitals move), and justified their suspicious presence with a story of how they were former employees of the hospital, that had come back for sentimental reasons. Right. Because that’s a thing you do. But again, I took strangers at their word, and shared with them the quest I was on, one which, at this point, not even Don Quixote would be foolish enough to pursue. Was A Tale for the Time Being even worth it?
I was then provided with two strange pieces of information: first, while the hospital had moved, the library had not. This then begged the question, where in the seven hells was it? The second piece of information: “the library is behind those vending machines over there.” As libraries so often are. I was not sure what to make of the architectural nightmare that was this hospital-that-isn’t-a-hospital and its vending machine library. Perhaps the vending machines dispense the books? Or maybe this is just how all defunct hospitals operate. Or…not operate, I guess.
Sure enough, however, there was a narrow hallway and staircase just behind the vending machines (reserved, perhaps, for the unlucky student in search of knowledge who dares to venture to UCL’s Ear Institute-Not-Ear Institute Hospital-Not-Hospital. Finally, I made it to a set of double doors, whose glass was taped over by an A4 sheet of paper labeled “UCL Ear Institute Library.” When I stepped inside, the librarian eagerly jumped out of his seat; the thirty years of dust that had accumulated under his rear since his last visitor scattered in all directions where he once sat. Another mortal, his gaze read, it’s been so long. Come hither. I came thither. What is it you seek? He inquired. Not with those words, but go with it. I filled him in using as few words as possible, directing all my energy to not run away.
Ah yes, the sages of the most Wise and Honorable Library of the Institute of the Ear do possess this volume. He beckons me closer, Come with me, let us find it. The librarian at this library-not-library then rounds the corner and disappears out of sight. He had crossed the threshold of the double doors. What could possibly bring him to do such a thing? Innocently, I followed, and found him at a door topped with a steel pin code lock. Not being able to withhold sarcasm, I joked, “Oh, do you keep all of your books under lock and key?” He didn’t laugh. But I didn’t expect him to.
We entered a tiny gray-painted room lined with models of skulls and the female reproductive system, questionable artifacts for a hospital-not-hospital openly claiming to specialize in the ear, nose, and throat. These are all the wrong orifices, I thought. But yet again, I trusted The Stranger. In a dusty corner, stood an eggshell-colored bookshelf containing what appeared to be medical textbooks. After a semi-thorough perusing, the librarian sighed, “It’s not here.” Of course it wasn’t. Why would it be? But, mere mortal, he beckoned again, perhaps we can search the other chamber. And sure enough, after returning to the first library, where the dust from his chair had settled by now, he popped up on a ladder, and I quickly spied not one, but six copies of Ruth Ozecki’s novel. He handed me one from the shelf.
“So um…” I began awkwardly, “when I return this…do I have to bring it back here?” He shook his head. My ticket to finding the holy grail was one-way.
This better be a damn good book.