A good place to talk

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The island of Nantucket sits 30 miles south-southeast of Cape Cod, Mass. Its settlement dates from 1659.

In my pantheon of public spaces (see article at right) it ranks as one of the great public places to visit. Though the price of private homes starts at $600,000 and quickly tops $1 million, there is ample open meadow, moor, and beach, and a bustling harbor. There is a treasure of an old town center with 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century homes; shops, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, all cheek by jowl; cobblestone streets resolute in their pre-car intimacy.

In the heart of it all is the stately Nantucket Atheneum, locus of talks, lectures, and book and poetry readings for more than 150 years - a public space dedicated to a life of the mind.

Recommended: 'Island Practice': 4 stories from an island's go-to doctor

Its forums are a living legacy of a New England way of life, a history of gatherings where the exchange of ideas matters most. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau spoke in its wonderfully preserved hall.

Last week I heard poet and author Jane Brox read at the Atheneum. She read from her latest book, "Five Thousand Days Like This One," a conversation about her family and their working farm in the Merrimac Valley north of Boston. Her private thoughts in that very public place evoked a communal spirit.

Thoreau, too, considered the need for the right space in sharing big ideas. Decidedly not describing an urban setting, he writes in "Walden": "I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side.... if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be further apart."

Public places like the Nantucket Atheneum offer just the right venue for what will always be a "singular luxury," - good conversation.

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