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Kristina Budelis

If you find yourself bored in Butler Library's Reference Room, look up on the north wall. You'll see inscribed, "MAN IS BUT ALL HE KNOWTH." Mottos should pithily describe the ethos of a group, institution, or in this case, a library, but this one falls flat. The saying suggests men become better through imbibing copious amounts of knowledge, presumably the type you come across in an Ivy League library. But how can those creatures that crawl out of Butler at all hours of the day reasonably qualify as "men" (or women)? Those protohumans that hole themselves up in that block of a building at the south end of campus, that great repository of books of literature, philosophy, equations, and other asinine things people dedicate their lives to—friends, those things aren't human. I'm not the Butler type, if you can tell, which makes me strangely suited for this special project: to spend 48 hours—two consecutive days—in Butler Library. Reactions from friends and acquaintances run the gamut, but the most common question is simply, "Why?" That is the question I intend to answer: Why, exactly, do so many of my fellow Columbians subject themselves to living in the library—literally living there for days straight—when they have a bed, a desk, a padded chair, and some privacy no more than four blocks away? How can you justify living in a place so miserable, so lifeless, so devoid of any of the things that bring meaning to life, just to read a book or do a problem set? You can check out the books, and problem sets can be done anywhere. This library has become a sort of masochistic theater in which participants perform the modern equivalent of ritual self-flagellation: studying for days straight, staying up until absurd hours of the night, and then complaining about it to their friends. Did any of us apply to Columbia for this? So I go there to learn its ways, its people, and its language; to eat only Blue Java; to sleep on its benches and floors; and to see how my person holds up under these various stresses. I will quaff the spirits that are Butler, and try not to puke it up afterward. Thursday, 12:00 p.m.: I enter the library knowing I won't leave until two days later. I spend an hour scouting out a study spot, a home base. Where you camp in Butler is a mark of social status—it corresponds with how much time you put into searching for a spot and how grave you consider where you sit to be. Consider the Reference Room. It's gaudy and gilded, with faux marble floors, high ceilings, tall windows, and large chandeliers—none too shabby a place to be seen. With all its reference materials, it also houses perhaps the greatest percentage of leather-bound books of all the rooms in the library. But Reference is too obvious. The more ambitious Butlerites tend toward the obscure study spots. I aim for 310, the Card Catalog Room. Perched high above the rows and rows of catalog card cases is a balcony with 25 or so of the classiest desks in Butler, normally reserved for the most elite studiers. Like nearly all other high-end pieces of real estate in Butler during midterms, every alcove is occupied by a person or a person's stuff. Winning one is a crapshoot, and I have no choice but to move someone's things from a desk, a mortal sin for some. Person studying at Catalog Room desk No. 20, I apologize. You seem to be studying chemistry, and it will be very awkward when you come back and we have to share the 4-by-4-foot desk. You can't claim this workspace merely because you left your notebook, Snickers wrapper, and trash from JJ's there. Sorry. Good luck on your midterm. (Note: The key to holding down a workspace in Butler is the volume of stuff you put there. Leave only a notebook and a few pieces of paper, and it's easy to move. Leave your jacket and backpack and blanket and four water bottles, and all of a sudden you've made it that much more difficult for someone to steal it. Don't be the easy target. Remember: It's not about finishing first, it's about not finishing last.) 5:00 p.m.: Part of plunging yourself into Butler is Blue Java, which for many reasons isn't a popular campus eatery. Its food offerings consist of only baked goods, yogurt, and soggy, factory-produced sandwiches probably shipped from out-of-state. I've already had the "tomato and mozzarella on ficelle" sandwich twice, for lunch and dinner, at $8.17 apiece. $8.17! You can get a delicious Milano sub with freshly cut meat and cheese for less. And there doesn't seem to be a single gram of protein in the entire cafe. Man does not live on stale muffins alone. They're lucky it's only two days for me, otherwise the only alternative would be cannibalism. 11:00 p.m.: The "sandwiches" have hit me hard, and three hours of reading ESPN's Web site and stalking people on Facebook can numb the mind, so I almost pass on the adventure I had scheduled for that night. I know, though, that this is the freshest I'll be, so I go tunneling under the library. The beating heart of Butler, which heats and cools and waters the entire building, is Level B, the basement—a concrete catacomb only accessible through X Stair, the northwesternmost stairwell, and then only after picking the lock on a grated door. Underground, you'll find yourself in a series of corridors that form a loop, part of the fabled tunnel system under the Morningside campus. The tunnels are hardly "tunnels" in the sense of muddy, dug-out crawl spaces—not that you would expect those under a modern building. Really, they're for custodial work, clearly used during the day, filled with ladders, long fluorescent tubes, lockers, pieces of wood and strap steel, pipes running every which way along the walls, heating vents, giant boxed-in machines pulsating with the heat of whatever they're doing, the stench of fiberglass, and the knobs and levers controlling God-knows-what part of the University. The walls are graffitied repeatedly with the same marker-drawn rats and giant stencil-painted flies, and at the end of one hallway, one artist cleverly labeled the doors Doors 1, 2, and 3. No. 3 leads to perhaps the coldest room in the entire school, on your way to what some signs suggest is Low. There are signs pointing the way to John Jay and Lerner, but in the two hours underground, I can't find a path to any other building. The tags of three tunnelers—"Artie," "Golden Cats," and "Benoit"—are ubiquitous. Benoit is the most recognizable one—he has a page on WikiCU. Some of his tags include his e-mail address, with promises of tours he leads himself. It apparently is inactive—at least for me. (It is, after all, a Yahoo account.) But the other bards of the basement still laud him: BENOIT's tunnel tours Are widely sought ... In my 4 years here I've never been caught :) (I concur—today's poetry needs more emoticons.) The basement, it turns out, might be the easiest way to get into the stacks after they are locked up for the night. After dark, obviously, they're deserted—and probably provide an ideal place to have sex in the library, if you are so inclined to do it there and not, say, in your own dorm, with your own bed and a locking door. Be careful, though, about which way you exit the stacks—the doors that indicate "ALARM WILL SOUND" are not, in fact, lying. When the alarms start buzzing, I decide to call it quits. It's been hours, and I'm hungry again—even for Blue Java. Sleep is a good option, but where? This is something I should have thought of hours ago. I narrow it down to two choices: the black, padded benches of the cafe on the second floor, or the plastic-y armchairs in 209. Indecision mixed with Hulu and dread of sleeping in Butler keep me up later than I want to be. (While wandering around in the early morning, I hear the alarm from Stack 9 still ringing. Apparently nobody has responded.) At 4 a.m., I go down to the cafe ready to sprawl myself out on one of the soft benches, but I'm afraid of being woken up at 7 by early risers buying coffee. I opt for 209, putting two chairs together and giving my 6-foot frame about four feet in which to sleep. Friday, 10:30 a.m.: I wake up with a strained back and the kind of greasy face and bedhead that normally call for a shower. It feels like I've spent a night camping, except I can't romanticize the experience like you can when you rough it in the woods. My breath is bad, and it's only going to get worse. During the first few minutes after waking up, while I'm trying to orient myself, two girls from Barnard sit down conspicuously close to me, ignoring open chairs more reasonably spaced from where I slept. But they aren't interested in me—they're interested in James Franco. Days earlier, one of them had received a text from a friend in Butler telling her that Franco was here. She sprinted from her dormitory to the library, and followed someone who turned out to be a James Franco look-alike all the way to the subway. Dejected, she started walking back home when she got another text: "He's still HERE." She raced back, found the real one here in 209, and waited until there was an free seat to grab a spot across from him and do Spanish homework. "I was shaking the whole time." She had brought her friend here to recall the tale. Butler can engender some heretofore undocumented psychoses, none stranger than that obsession some students have with finding Franco in the library. From the rest of Columbia: Mr. Franco, we're sorry. I imagine you hate us all. 2:30 p.m.: Back to Blue Java for lunch. They've restocked on sushi, chicken wraps, and some other foodstuffs made of meat, so today at least I can cover every food group. While standing in line, I overhear, "2.99? 2.99?! Do I at least get free coffee with that?" I think the guy was buying a Clif Bar. Apparently I'm not the only one peeved at Java's prices. 3:39 p.m.: For a break from the bustle of the library proper, I take an excursion to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a museum-like corner of Butler's sixth floor that no undergraduate should miss. Currently on display in its Octagon Room is "The Dream Machine." (This sounds like something out of "Legends of the Hidden Temple.") The device—part of a display on "Naked Lunch" and William S. Burroughs, a glorified prototype to the strobe light—was invented by two of Burroughs' friends for their LSD trips, and purportedly creates "a flickering light that oscillates at a rhythm corresponding to the alpha waves of the brain, thus creating a psychedelic effect on the observer," according to the caption next to it. It can also create headaches. 6:33 p.m.: After the sojourn to the Rare Book Library, I head back to my desk in the Catalog Room, intent on studying for the midterm I have Wednesday. I can see through the window that Carman Hall is buzzing with freshmen spending their Friday night right. It's depressing, and at this point, the library has really started to hit me physically. I have yet to brush my teeth, and now's about the time when my five o'clock shadow really takes hold. My eyes are glazed and bloodshot from hours of wearing contacts. Before, I could sit somewhere in the library and passers-by would think nothing of me. Now I'm a harried freak—a friend I had lunch with at 1 p.m. today tells me I've changed. 8:52 p.m.: Doing this on Family Weekend is a happy coincidence. Two sets of parents who are touring the library comment on my odyssey. One is glad to see "colorful" things like this happening on campus. But any "color" my trip held is by this hour completely washed away, replaced by the dull gray of listlessness. By the 30th hour, the sounds of Butler have become more pronounced: The squeak of sneakers across the polished floors scream, and tapping pens become jet engines. Trying not to focus on such small sounds only makes them louder. The lighting in, say, Butler's foyer and other prominent parts of the library is done subtly; in the less public parts, though, it is obnoxious and stinging. My head is swimming, and I want fresh air. Because I've made my desk so messy that it's unfit as a workspace, I try to move around to different spots in the library, but to no avail. My mind isn't in a state to get anything done, and I resign myself to the fact that I will leave this library not having done a single piece of schoolwork or having read any books. 9:20 p.m.: Text from a friend: "And you probably smell bad. Ew. I'm great—clean, warm, not in the library, Haha :) ..." 11:30 p.m.: Fresh air, I decide, can only be gotten by going up onto the roof. Earlier in the day, I'd hunted for a way to get up there—and it's not hard at all. At the northwest corner of the sixth floor, there is a staircase up to the seventh with a window from which you can climb out and onto the roof. Short of breaking a lock (and potentially setting off an alarm), this is the easiest way up. The view is fantastic, but for me, brief—I can see security guards snooping around through the windows of the sixth floor, so I book it. On my way back down, I run into a grad student who has been at Columbia for what he describes as "a long time." I tell him I'm sleeping in the library tonight. According to him, the best places to sleep in Butler are the alcoves on the third floor or the private study rooms on the fourth (if they're free). Those who hit the hay in the chairs near the Circulation Desk on the third floor are "the most intense." I agree: For both nights I'm here, I see the same man asleep in the same two chairs, wearing the same blue button-down. Unfortunately, I never get the chance to interview him when he wakes up. (My first question would have been, "Why, for the love of God, why?!") I am exhausted and sleep-deprived, but anxious about going to bed again in the library, so I decide to stay up. Past midnight, Butler is a different place, filled with catatonics at their desks for no apparent reason. Each has some demon clawing at their back: a midterm or an essay they've procrastinated on. I'm not one of them, but I am among them, desperate for my own bed. I go to sleep, once again, at 4 in the morning. Saturday, 9:00 a.m.: This isn't funny anymore. I tried the double-chair method to sleep again, which mean my back now cracks with every step I take. My whole body hurts: My left elbow is chafed from leaning on it for hours, and my eyes are raw from the glow of computer screens and fluorescent lights. My white undershirt is pilly with the red fluff from the blanket I brought with me. And miraculously, I really have accomplished zero homework in the past 47 hours. I did this because I thought it wouldn't interfere with my schoolwork too much. "I'll be in the library for days, literally—I'll have plenty of time to study." I was so, so wrong. There is a silver lining, though. In three short hours, I am going to have the long-awaited sweet release—I'm going to go to Homecoming, get drunk, and then sleep—sweet, glorious sleep, with a mattress and sheets and pillows. I can already hear groups of students from Frat Row walking between Butler and Carman, chanting fight songs and beaming with almost-never-seen school pride. Then, at noon, with slight trepidation, I leave the library, emerging from Butler a different man. Different how? Well, I smell worse and look like a homeless person. My body feels like it's been dragged by a horse and then beaten by that horse. My brain feels like it's floating above my head, disconnected, with no real control over my actions. I'm convinced that no one—absolutely no one—feels good after exiting Butler. There is no sense of accomplishment, no self-satisfaction. You would've rather been doing something different. Like some sort of drug, people seek out Butler in times of desperation, when they need to write a term paper in six hours or cram for a test in a class they haven't done any work in for weeks. Butler, in turn, welcomes you with a cold embrace and vindictive smile. It knows you don't want to be there—that you have no choice—but it's indifferent. And like a battered wife, you return all the same. Despite not picking up a single book the entire time, I did learn one thing: Although nobody is happy in Butler, everybody is unhappy together.