Way down in the hole: A reflection on dead week in Main Stacks

Image of the descending staircases of Main Stacks at UC Berkeley.
Mitzi Perez/File

R eading, Review, and Recitation Week, or, as it’s known to students, dead week, is a special time of the year. It’s a week when students of all backgrounds and majors — from freshmen who still tell people their major is “pre- Haas” to juniors, like me, who are undeclared and can’t get their shit together — take studying seriously. But the epithet assigned to this week is decidedly bleak.

The “dead” in dead week is unique, however, in that it is a word with so many different implications, but it speaks to the entire student body in a way we all painfully understand.

The “dead” can refer to many things, from the death of the manic hum of Berkeley’s always-happening campus energy as instruction ends, to Sproul-ers packing up their tables and GSIs receding to Northside to grade papers and hash out curve scenarios for students, to the death of your love life (as memes explain, this time of the year systemically murders any and all hope for co-ed connections).

The “dead” in dead week also marks a student-wide descent. Much like the dead in the gravest sense, RRR Week sees students go underground. Underground they go, to the purgatory of procrastination: Main Stacks.

At one time or another, most students have found themselves in the bowels of the library system, sweating under fluorescent lights as they cram information down for a lecture “they didn’t have to go to.” Even though many of us have been lost in Main Stacks before, few are aware of just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Main Stacks was constructed with a carrying capacity of 3 million books, currently holds 2.3 million and dives 60 feet below the school. And in case you forgot some fun facts from freshmen orientation, it has 52 miles worth of bookshelves. Not only do these high numbers make for some interesting trivia, but they also contribute to the library’s particularly dismal atmosphere.

Like a casino for studying, during dead week, Main Stacks is open 24 hours a day. There are a lack of visible clocks, limited amounts of natural light and bad cell reception on floors one and two (and none on floor three). People come, and sometimes they don’t leave.

The closer students get to crunch time, the more absurd the atmosphere in Main Stacks becomes; premed students camp out in sleeping bags on the floor next to their study tables, four-course meals are discreetly eaten out of backpacks to beat the “no food or drink” policy, and coveted cubbies allegedly go up on the Free & For Sale page or Craigslist for auction. I’ve even heard rumors of a student who had packed with them a Mr. Coffee coffeemaker and a miniature toaster oven.

Sadly, however, absurdity in Main Stacks reveals scenes of academic peril and student distress. The wave of the coming break crashes and rolls back during dead week, revealing a wounded shore of students succumbing to the tide of procrastination. They are pulled out and under in a dangerous current of “I’ll do that tomorrow” and “If I get 100 percents on all the tests, why do the homework?” until they’re overwhelmed by the squalls of work and pulled down to the depths of stress, dragging their GPA down with them. It’s depressing, but it happens.

I can’t say how many times I’ve found myself way down in the hole at the end of a semester, staring at a blank wood panel in a Main Stack’s cubby wondering why I hadn’t started studying sooner. The worst part is that whatever I told myself to get out of work then never seems like a valid excuse now. But I know I’m not alone in my ways. I’ve seen plenty of other students visibly break in the library — a frustrated hair-grab, a deep breath, a physical rejection of any more knowledge from a single book manifested in a small shove.

But where there are students divided in studying by their major, the stakes of their finals and the volumes of material they have to cram for, there is solidarity in the fact that we all have work to do and we’re all really stressed out by it. It goes more unspoken than said out loud, but students on this campus are radically different in a litany of ways. But when you overhear a conversation about dead week that sounds like the Coachella line-up of academia — “I have a 15-page research paper due at the end of the first weekend and I have two finals on Monday, so I’m living in Moffitt Library the second weekend” — you know you’re in shared company. The people here may be different, but we’re all students.

Just as we all share the burden of a semester simultaneously misspent and well-spent, we also all share a place way down and in the hole. And that shared place in the mania of a week dedicated to reflection of all kinds acts as a catalyst to bring the campus together.

Maybe it’s bringing a friend on an eight-hour study binge some Chipotle they didn’t want but they know they need. Maybe it’s offering a stranger a spot in your reserved study room. Maybe it’s getting naked to run through the halls of Main Stacks to blow off some steam while raising your own spirits and the spirits of those around you. Whatever it is, like a biannual holiday season, it comes twice a year, and in its own bizarre Berkeley way, it brings us all a little closer together. We’ve all been down in the hole.

Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.