Reader’s Corner: Surround Yourself With Books

Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was famous for having one of the world’s great libraries. It contained about 30,000 volumes and knocked the socks off pretty much everybody who saw it. (There’s a video here of the Foucault’s Pendulum author wandering through it.)

Did he read all those books? Of course not. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, that’s a good thing. Here’s Taleb quoted by Maria Popova:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.

Keep collecting those books, as long as space and money allow. You’ll get to them. Eventually.

Weekend Reading: May 5, 2017

Writer’s Desk: Finding a Nook

Brooklyn's Central Library - a sweet place to write (Library of Congress).
Brooklyn’s Central Library – a sweet place to write (Library of Congress).

Finding the right space to write in is always a challenge. Some people could write in a highway median; others need dead silence. Most of us are somewhere in that Goldilocks in-between.

For all those New York-based writers (or just those coming through), here’s some ideas for great writing spaces that the Times culled from some local playwrights:

Dan Lauria (Dinner with the Boys) — “All the rewrites on my play were done sitting at the Westway Diner in a booth late at night. It’s 24 hours. I get all the coffee I want.”

Michael Weller (Doctor Zhivago) — “I tend to write on subways.”

Laura Eason (The Undeniable Sound of Right Now) — “… the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The third floor has a music and art room where there are these great tables … You’re surrounded by humanity that I find inspirational and beautiful and sad and complicated.”

Reader’s Corner: Great Library Reading Rooms

The library at Paris's La Sorbonne (Zantastik).
The library at Paris’s La Sorbonne (Zantastik).

Even in our brave new online world, libraries are still one of the best repositories for research and reading. Yes, most things can be gotten online, but there are times when the physical proximity of materials provides new insights that strictly electronic pursuits do not.

They are also simply great places to read. The good folks at Read It Forward have presented here nine of the greatest and grandest library reading rooms from around the world. Some are beautiful enough that it’s hard to imagine not being too distracted to even turn the page.

Readers’ Corner: Books and Ideas Never Die

'The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD' by Ambrose Dudley, c.1910 (The Stapleton Collection)
‘The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD’ by Ambrose Dudley, c.1910 (The Stapleton Collection)

In Tom Stoppard’s masterful 1993 play Arcadia, a young woman is overwhelmed by an existential grief after reading of the destruction of antiquity’s great library of Alexandria:

…can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library! … How can we sleep for grief?

arcadia1In response, her tutor tries to remind her that in the end, nothing can be lost, regardless of the calamity, because that’s not how life works:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe…

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Readers’ Corner: Taking Books to the Street

bookmobileMost people who read as children have fond memories of the bookmobile. One had normally thoroughly ransacked the age-appropriate shelves at the local public library and the thin offerings in the school itself. So having an RV pull up with an appropriately stern librarian with some new offerings (or at least the old offerings newly presented) was manna from heaven.

In Portland, Oregon, a phenomenal little nonprofit group is taking that idea in an entirely different direction. Street Books is a small band of dedicated booklovers who spend a few hours each week bicycling books around to the city’s homeless population. From the Times writeup:

The Street Books project is nothing if not messy. The librarians — the three salaried employees, including Ms. Moulton, are paid $60 a week for a three-hour shift — fill their carts based on their tastes and their patrons’ tastes.

Diana Rempe, 48, a community psychologist who recently completed her Ph.D. and pedals the bike one afternoon a week, stops at a day-labor assembly site on the city’s east side, where many Mexican and Latin American men gather, waiting to be hired. So she loads up on books in Spanish. (Her proudest book coup, she said, was getting a hard-to-find book on chess moves in Spanish for two Cuban players.)

You can donate money here, or email them and ask about donating books that people have been asking about.

Reader’s Corner: Great Otherworldly Librarians

(Courtesy DC Comics)
Batgirl, when she’s not shelving (courtesy DC Comics)

Readers of genre fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy—have a special place in their hearts for bookstores, libraries, and other (preferably dark and quiet) repositories of the written word. While librarians would seem to most like a prickly breed, they tend to show up in works of the fantastic as heroes, or at least very valuable allies.

Thanks to the smart folks at Tor, here’s a look at some of the more awesome fantasy/sci-fi librarians, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Sandman comics.

It’s a solid list, all in all (even if it does miss out on the omnisciently Jeeves-ian Librarian from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash), though they do pale in comparison to Barbara Gordon, the occasional librarian otherwise known as Batgirl.

Reader’s Corner: Free Books from the Vatican

The opening of the gospel of Matthew, in Persian. Possibly acquired by the Vatican in the 16th century (Library of Congress)
The opening of the gospel of Matthew, in Persian. Possibly acquired by the Vatican in the 16th century (Library of Congress)

The Vatican Library, with its gaudy halls and astounding troves of rare manuscripts—not to mention that ever-exciting aura of deep dark mystery—is about to get a whole lot less secret. Last week, the Vatican began a multi-year project to digitize 1.5 million pages from their 82,000 manuscripts. Then they’re going to post it all online.

According to the Chicago Tribune:

“The manuscripts that will be digitized extend from pre-Columbian America to China and Japan in the Far East, passing through all the languages and cultures that have marked the culture of Europe,” said Monsignor Jean-Louis Brugues, archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church.

In short, very cool.

Reader’s Corner: The Monastery Library in Admont

The Admont Benedictine Monastery was established in Austria in the year 1074 and is still a going concern. Impressive enough. But add on to that the existence of its stunning Baroque library, finished in 1776. Inside its glorious assemblage of bright walls and frescoed ceilings, the library contains tens of thousands of volumes, including 530 incunabula (books printed before 1500).

The Admont’s builder, Joseph Hueber, was a man of the Enlightenment, who believed in beauty of all kinds:

As with the mind, light should also fill the room.

(h/t: Fodor’s)

Readers’ Corner: New York’s Hidden Library

The New York Public Library's Main Reading Room.
The New York Public Library’s Main Reading Room.

When you think “New York” and “library” there’s really only one that comes to mind: the grand main branch on Fifth Avenue facing Bryant Park. It’s gorgeous, it’s iconic, they have just about every book you can imagine (even if they’ve started trying to move a bunch of titles off-site); in other words perfect. The main Brooklyn branch on Grand Army Plaza is no slouch, either, either in architectural grandness or selection.

But there’s another library worth mentioning, and that’s the one underneath the Surrogate’s Court building in downtown Manhattan that nobody knows about: the City Hall Library. From last Tuesday’s New York Times:

Below the library are the cavernous storerooms and vaults that contain some of the maps, books, photographs and other items that are part of the Municipal Archives. They document the city’s government and leadership dating back to the unification of the boroughs into New York City in 1898, and back to the first mayor of the city, Thomas Willett, in 1665.

The history of the city is celebrated in old sepia photographs, wall-size topographical maps and reproduction manuscripts on display within the library and in a visitor center next to the library.

Yet there is not a hint of any of this on the granite exterior of the imposing Beaux-Arts building at 31 Chambers Street, behind City Hall….The librarians say the courthouse’s status as a designated landmark means that they are not allowed to hang a sign on the building’s exterior.

Grand Central Station, circa 1937 - one of the images available from New York city's Municipal Archives.
Grand Central Station, circa 1937 – one of the images available from New York city’s Municipal Archives.

If you can’t get there, though, no worry: Much of the Municipal Archives’ photographic holdings were digitized and put online last year—the interest was so immediate that it crashed the server. It’s an astonishing collection of historical imagery, which you can see here. Many of the old glass-plate negatives that the NYPD shot of crime scenes back in the early 20th century were used by Luc Sante in his ghostly book, Evidence.

 

Trailer Park: ‘Library Wars’

23100-librarywar

library-wars1

There’s a series of Japanese novels by Hiro Arikawa (already turned into manga and animated series and film) about a dystopian future where the Japanese military has been instructed to remove all “objectionable” printed material from libraries. In response, a group called the Library Force is formed to battle said censorship with full Wolverines-style mayhem, if necessary. The live-action film version is called, you got it, Library Wars! Much bookish awesomeness is guaranteed.

Library Wars is being released in Japan later this spring. Who knows if this will ever make it to the States … but one can hope.

Trailer is here:

Reader’s Corner: The Bookless Library

booklesslibrary1

It’s an idea that sounds ridiculous on its face but might turn out to have some merit. Texas’s Bexar County, which includes the city of San Antonio, is planning to open up a new library that will hold no printed books. Not one. Instead, patrons will be able to borrow digital reading devices and ebooks. There will also be dozens of computer terminals for public use. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The trial location, opening in a satellite government office on San Antonio’s south side in the fall, will have a selection of about 10,000 titles, and 150 e-readers for patrons to check out, including 50 designed for children. The library will allow users to access books remotely, and will feature 25 laptops and 25 tablets for use on site, as well as 50 desktop computers. It will also have its own coffee house.

Staffers will help patrons with technical questions, but there will be no designated research assistants. County officials, who estimate startup costs at $1.5 million, believe overall costs will be lower than running traditional libraries, and are considering additional locations.

library2There are some problems with this plan, most particularly the still-high cost of entry  (not everybody has an e-reader, and not everybody will be able to borrow one of the library’s) and the also much-higher costs for libraries to buy rental digital copies of some popular books.

That being said, it’s refreshing to see a local government still striving to create open spaces for its citizens to gather, receive services, and access free literature and information. Plus: coffee.

Now, if somebody could just revitalize the bookmobile as a traveling free Wi-Fi spot with great books (maybe coffee too), they’d really be on to something.

Side note: very cool slideshow of bookmobiles here.

 

Reading Spaces: The Wal-Mart Library

It’s a common problem: Wal-Mart comes to town, builds a ginormous hypermart just outside of town, local businesses shut down, and then eventually Wal-Mart closes as well, leaving a giant crumbling edifice surrounded by a weedy parking lot. Charles Fishman wrote a great and judicious book about it a few years ago called The Wal-Mart Effect (my Chicago Reader piece on that here).

When the Wal-Mart in McAllen, Texas closed down, though, the town came up with an ingenious solution. Take the empty space — the size of almost 2 1/2 football fields — and turn it into the nation’s largest one-story library. It’s been open since December 2011 and as you can see in this Los Angeles Times story, is a wondrous reading space and one of those increasingly rare things in America: a true community center.