Like a privileged mouse slipping through a hole in the wall, Reader scurries through the snow to the back of the grand old Jefferson Building and into the basement. After clearing the X-ray machine that sifts out pistols and hand grenades, Reader strips off heavy coat, hat, mittens, and bag, pulling out just what is needed for research. All pens and notecards go into a clear plastic bag so security officers can see at a glance what is there. Terrorist control. Gone are the days when Anyone Who Reads—however weird, anonymous, and unaffiliated—could sweep in through the gilded front entrance, burst into the great domed reading room, and order any book in the world, no questions asked.

But technology hasn’t touched the old elevators that lift the back way to the reading room: wood, brass inlay, brass rail to lean on, and whirring ceiling fan. The elevators’ walls are deeply scuffed by generations of library carts. On the first floor, flashing Reader’s ID at yet another security guard, Reader floats at last into the cream-and-gold high-domed reading room.

Choose a desk—on the north side, where even laptops are banned, where all noises are locked out. Each Reader’s space in the carved wooden ark of desks has its brass reading lamp, glass writing surface, and span to accommodate piles of books. On all sides are serious, quiet thinkers with the rapt expressions of the truly absorbed.

And now, Find the Book. Reader goes into what used to be the catalog room, which now has eight bays of computers with six computers at each bay able to reach any of 12 million books. More people are worshipping at these chapel altars than are kneeling before actual books in the cathedral dome itself. Tic tic tic. Elbow to elbow in happy camaraderie. Facts spew out. It is more intimate and less demanding than actual reading. Though the computer is fast as greased lightning, one must still transcribe data in the ancient way, with a stubby yellow pencil and triplicate paper with carbons, then walk it over to the raised dais in the center of the dome and hand it up to the solemn attendant who checks Reader’s ID again: supplicant reaching to priest with petition. Stamp. Stamp. Waiting time for book delivery is posted on a sign at the dais: 60 minutes.

An hour for lunch. Reader dips underground through echoing tunnels that connect the trinity of Congress’ library: the Jefferson, Adams, and Madison Buildings. Here scientists and poets jostle with print-shop technicians and library cataloguers, ducking around wheeled, high-loaded carts. In the underground cafeteria, a steaming plate of black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, and collard greens comes to $2.67.

At three tables jammed together, the print-shop folks in blue smocks shout jokes, vivid tales, and contempt for bosses and lovers. The library is famously discontented along racial lines, and their anecdotes spell out the divide with hearty laughter. At three other tables conviviality also reigns: a literary discussion in Portuguese, Asian and Russian colleagues talking music, two lively women debating foreign policy. Here and there, solitary thinkers with book in one hand, sandwich in the other, peer at the talkers. Stretching behind the thinkers, talkers, lunchers, workers is the employee bulletin board. It begs Reader to think about:

Singer

Available for Dinner Parties

Flowers for Sale

French Lawyer

Adoption:

Give your baby the precious gift of life and we’ll provide a full-time mom and dad, endless love. Expenses paid.

Faculty: Moscow Pedagogical State University

Alto Saxophone

Miniature Schnauzer Puppies

Back in the great dome, young men and women who page the books from altar to table step by softly on the thick rug. Readers dazedly raise their heads from a world of thought as books are shifted on to their desks. They look anxiously at any returned slips marked “Not on Shelf.” This Reader is happy to receive Larry McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave.

The Book arrives through this awkward machine that lets Readers in the basement door, sifts out their weapons of terror and mittens and hats, spews data from computers, requires translation to a piece of paper—which then makes its way to dusky stacks, where a human reads it and locates the Book itself, which then travels on conveyer belt to the dome, to be picked up by an attendant and carried to the Reader’s desk. How strange, how miraculous. A ray of sun through a window in the dome lights up this Reader’s treasure, and gently, gently she drifts through the afternoon. —Judith Larsen