The story of this hateful barrier’s fall and the ensuing 28 years, two months and 27 days of German history is one of expanded individual horizons: it has meant previously unimaginable travel, enterprise, friendships and relationships (the proportion of German couples with one “Ossi” and one “Wessi” partner passed the 10% mark in around 2008). Among the touching reflections on the anniversary today have been social media posts to that effect by Germans speculating on how much poorer their lives would have been #ohneMauerfall (without the fall of the wall).
One experience is better documented than most. The wall’s construction in 1961 was Angela Merkel’s first political memory: “My father was preaching on that Sunday. The atmosphere was horrible in the church. I will never forget it. People cried. My mother cried too. We couldn’t fathom what had happened.” Just over 28 years later, working as a physicist in East Berlin, she was taking her regular Tuesday-evening sauna when travel restrictions were lifted. She later joined the crowds pouring across the border at the Bornholmer Straße bridge and, on the other side, wanted to call her aunt in Hamburg from a pay phone, but had no West German money. A woman who had dreamed of travelling to the West, perhaps to America with special permission on her retirement, would soon after plunge into the reunified republic’s politics and end up leading it. If she secures a fourth term as chancellor in the still-ongoing coalition talks she could end up having done so for over half of its post-wall history.
One possible explanation for this is how old people are when they learn different kinds of languages. Small, in-group languages tend to be learned in infancy, when the brain is astonishingly adept at learning complicated linguistic systems and large lists of exceptions to the rules. But languages like English and Chinese are learned by huge numbers of people later in life, including adulthood, when the brain has become much less cooperative. So, one hypothesis goes, the features that are harder to learn in later life get lost from languages that are learned by plenty of second-language speakers.
But Reali, Chater, and Christiansen think we can make that explanation even simpler and not worry about when in life a language is learned. They point to evidence that vocabulary is easier to learn than fiddly grammar, and the team suggests that, when you combine this ease of learning with different population sizes, the results we see in languages around us fall out naturally.
Libraries are the last place in every town and city that people can simply exist. Every building one enters today comes with some expectation of spending money. Restaurants require paying for service. Shops require the intention of purchasing something. Houses require rent. Anyone who has lived near the poverty line, whether or not they have actually been homeless, has felt the threatening pressure toward expenditure that permeates the public spaces of modern Western culture. Even a free restroom is becoming difficult to find, especially as growing cities experience ever-increasing space constraints.
In a library, no one is asked to pay anything simply to sit. For those with few resources besides time, this is a godsend. Libraries are unofficial playgrounds for low-income families on rainy days, homeless shelters in cold months, reprieves from broken homes for grade-school-age children. They are the last bastions of quiet and calm where nothing is asked of one but to exist. Many arguments have been made about how the library is an outdated institution offering outdated services—that in the twenty-first-century how-to books on building sheds and daily newspaper copies are obsolete and the funding used for libraries ought to be reallocated to other programs. I can only assume that those who make such arguments are people who have always been comfortable with the expenditures it takes to move through the world, whose presence has never been questioned. For those people, libraries can be about books. But not everyone has the luxury of seeing past the space.
The Renovo Public Library, in North-Central Pennsylvania, isn’t a handsome wood or brick building on the town square. It certainly isn’t anything like the New York Public Library’s main branch, on Fifth Avenue, with its marble lion guards outside and palatial rooms and hallways. Instead, it’s a small, squat former auto garage built with concrete blocks painted white. The building was remodeled and opened in 1968, in a campaign led by a group of schoolteachers and local residents to obtain, for our remote end of the county, a branch library. It sits on a rise overlooking the Susquehanna river, at the end of a dead-end street, all but hidden from the currents of town life.
Frequently, I was the only person in the building, other than our librarian, Viv. I lingered there on drowsy after-school afternoons because I loved the sweet damp smell of paper and glue slowly decaying, because I loved pulling some forgotten old hardcover from the shelves, and because, simply, I loved being in a room filled with books. Two rooms, actually. There was a small-town stillness, an atmosphere of benign neglect inside our little library that suggested the great works of Western lit were mine alone to discover. A translation of the Greek epic poem the Odyssey had, according to its date-stamped card, an equally epic lending history: checked out twice in 1968, once in 1980, and again in 1992, before I came along, in March of 1994, when I was 17, and removed Homer’s masterpiece from its place for the fifth time in more than a quarter century.
I arrived at the artists’ residency late in the afternoon with a small suitcase, my computer, and my notebook. Located in the outer reaches of New Delhi, the residency offered space to eight writers and visual artists to work for up to two months. If you’d asked me, I’d have said I had big plans for my three weeks there, but the truth was my timing was off; I’d just completed a novel before coming to India to visit family and begin a new project. I needed to do research, but I wasn’t sure what that research would look like. Books? Interviews? Archival material? Uncertainty reigned. Furthermore, I hadn’t factored into my plans how helpful family members, with their insistence on driving me places or offering up their car and driver, often added time to the process, as I scheduled my outings around their busy schedules.
It was almost dusk when my cousin dropped me off at the residency. Dusk and dawn are the worst times to drive, with their shifting light and shadows, the contrast between the light sky and dark road hard on the eyes. Arriving at a new destination in this smoky light with its blurred edges and deep shadows induces a specific kind of terror. I’m not afraid of the dark, but I do have a terrible sense of direction and can’t read maps. For this reason, my first rule of travel is to arrive in the clear light of day. I orient myself by landmarks; in the dark, I grope around like a blind person with no guide, off course and confused.