Saturday, January 7, 2012

Literary Landmark No. 1

As a result of my current unemployed state, as well as my desire to occupy myself in economically sound ways (read: free), I have decided to embark on a quest.  Now, if you know me, you can probably attest to the fact that I’m devoted and loyal to people and goals alike.  You might also know that I am a huge literary nerd.  After all, one doesn’t earn two English degrees without

  • Getting excited at Shakespeare references in contemporary music (“Stars, hide your fires”).
  • Initiating catchphrases made solely out of authors’ names (“Achebe, Achebe”; that’s for you, Cliner).
  • Creating scales on which to judge others’ intellectual prowess and attention to aesthetics by their reaction to Lolita.
  • Forming jokes beginning along these lines: “A priest, a rabbi, and Žižek walk into a bar…”.  And then finding them funny.
  • Et cetera.

As a going-away gift, I received a book that appealed to the literary nerd in me, titled Literary Landmarks of New York: The Book Lover’s Guide to the Homes and Haunts of World-Famous Writers by Bill Morgan.  As a result, I plan to visit all of the places and document any literary experiences that I have there, too.  Or just take a picture to say I did it.

Thus, I begin with my favorite building in New York, not only because it’s fascinating but because it’s beautiful: The New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.

The Stephen A. Shwarzman Building
 You’re so shocked right now that I would love the library, I can tell.

I’ve already been there four days out of the six that I’ve been here.  The building is iconic, yes, but the mechanics of the innovative system are just fascinating, too.  I would love to be one of the people to walk along these forty miles of glorious shelf space under Bryant Park, finding and delivering books to feed intellectual inquiry. To spare more details for those who are actually interested, I suggest reading about the delivery system here.

Just a few quantitative facts that charm me as well: about 50 million items in its collection and 18 million books.  Be still, my heart.

There’s an ongoing display of several of the library’s special items that give my heart a little trill to see: an original copy of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner,” recognizable because of the misspelling “pariotic,” an original Gutenberg bible, George Washington’s handwritten farewell speech to his troops, manuscripts from Eliot’s The Waste Land to Kerouac’s On the Road scroll, and the diary of Virginia Woolf, opened to her last entry, dated four days before her suicide, displayed right next to her cane that Leonard found washed up downriver. Among other things.

More than the objective facts, though, is the beautiful Rose Reading Room, “one of the largest public reading rooms in the city.”* The towering carved ceilings and paint details are nothing short of spectacular, and they rise with such grandeur that the room almost gives the impression of a cathedral, nearly sacred in its aspirations.  The wood beneath patrons’ feet creaks with age and the accumulated history of both the ideas held within the library’s books and the readers who seek them.  Books (and literary fiction, no less) line the walls.

But more wonderful to me than the building details, than the beautiful design and marble everything, is the feeling of being in the reading room.  It’s full of people reading, researching, studying, editing, sitting.  Some may just charge their phones or play on Facebook, but there’s still a respectful quiet to the proceedings, which is shocking yet welcoming in the midst of such a loud, honking, shouting, bustling city outside.  Nevertheless, there’s a discernible hum of activity: the rhythmic tapping on keyboards (sometimes paused as the typist glances upward, looking for inspiration or better syntax), muted coughs, scraping chairs**, creaking floorboard, the nearly imperceptible turning of an aged page…I love it.  That’s my background music.

*Anytime I include a quotation when remarking about sights I visit on my “quest,” they will be quotes from the aforementioned book.  No plagiarism here, kids.
**Interesting fact: when I’m sitting upright (properly) and all the way back in the chairs of the reading room, my feet don’t quite touch the floor.  Although I could curse genetics (damn you Rangs and your short legs; oh, wait, I just did it), I think it adds to the childlike wonder I have in the building.

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