I love the reading room in winter. It’s simple, warm, and friendly. I walk in with only a laptop, a notebook, and a pencil and the librarian on duty immediately steps into the back room and brings out the books I’ve requested. I choose a back table where I can survey the whole room and I set up my laptop, plugging the power supply into the socket hanging over the table. I prop up the first book that interests me on a gray foam wedge and adjust it to a comfortable angle, draping a velvet-covered chain to keep it open. I look around and see a few familiar faces of other researchers working on this Saturday morning. If anyone looks up we smile and wave quietly. Through the windows surrounding the room I can see rain falling on the red tile rooftops.
I open the file for my book on the laptop and continue where I left off on Friday, taking notes or transcribing text when it’s really relevant. Each book has a file and an entry in my database. In six months, when I start to write my dissertation, I will need all the information I can get. In my notebook I jot down any thoughts that come to mind outside the actual content of the book, such as “request more almanacs” or “pick up milk.”
The herbal book I am examining has a picture and description of each plant, telling its medicinal applications. The book is dated 1536. I note that the author illustrates imported plants with a neat woodcut print of a twisted root or an open sack full of seeds. Having no idea what cinnamon actually looks like in its habitat, he shows a stack of four thick sticks. Mediterranean herbs such as marjoram, rosemary, or basil are shown as entire plants, roots and all, as are plants that grow in Germany like onions or garlic. All this bounty and no mention of food or cooking! This is a medical book. The author is interested in the Galenic balance of humors and how the plant’s properties of wet, dry, hot, or cold can restore good health.
No wonder I’m hungry when the library closes at 1:00 PM. I pack up my laptop, leave the reading room, bundle into my winter coat at the library door, and head out into the cold rainy town. I cross the wet cobblestones into the Wurst Bazaar, which has the best French fries in Wolfenbüttel. The woman behind the counter recognizes me and smiles. Somehow currywurst sounds good today.
She cuts up hot roasted bratwurst, pours spicy barbecue sauce over it and sprinkles it with yellow curry powder. Then she pours fresh French fries on to the plate and dusts them lightly with paprika. I take the plate to a back table and get out my current book, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination by Paul Freedman. It is only fitting that the next chapter is on how Europeans imagined India as the mysterious land of spices.