Today's Reading

It wasn't that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries—and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.

***

So the spell libraries once cast on me was renewed. Maybe it had never really been extinguished, although I had been away long enough that it was like visiting a country I'd loved but forgotten as my life went galloping by. I knew what it was like to want a book and to buy it, but I had forgotten what it felt like to amble among the library shelves, finding the book I was looking for but also seeing who its neighbors were, noticing their peculiar concordance, and following an idea as it was handed off from one book to the next, like a game of telephone. I might start at Dewey decimal 301.4129781 (Pioneer Women by Joanna L. Stratton) and a few inches later find myself at 306.7662 (Gaydar by Donald F. Reuter) and then 301.45096 (Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama) and finally 301.55 (The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson). On a library bookshelf, thought progresses in a way that is logical but also dumbfounding, mysterious, irresistible.

Not long after my son interviewed the librarian, I happened to meet a man named Ken Brecher who runs the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the nonprofit organization that champions the city's libraries and raises money for extra programming and services. Brecher offered to give me a tour of Central Library, so a few days later, I drove downtown to meet him. From the highway, I could see the quiver of dark skyscrapers in the center of the city that surrounded the library. The summer and fall had been rainless. The landscape around me was bright and bleached, blasted, with an almost ashy pallor. Even the palm trees seemed sapped of color, and the reddish rooftops were whitened, as if dusted with sugar.

I felt new here, and the sheer breadth of Los Angeles still astonished me. It seemed like I could drive and drive and the city would just keep unfurling, almost as if it were a map of Los Angeles being unrolled as I drove over it, rather than a real city that started and stopped somewhere specific. In Los Angeles, your eye keeps reaching for an endpoint and never finds it, because it doesn't exist. The wide-openness of Los Angeles is a little intoxicating, but it can be unnerving, too—it's the kind of place that doesn't hold you close, a place where you can picture yourself cartwheeling off into emptiness, a pocket of zero gravity. I'd spent the previous five years living in the Hudson Valley of New York, so I was more used to bumping into a hill or a river at every turn and settling my gaze on some foreground feature—a tree, a house, a cow. For twenty years before that, I'd lived in Manhattan, where the awareness of when you are in or out of the city is as clear as day.

***

I expected Central Library to look like the main libraries I knew best. New York Public Library and the Cleveland Public Library are serious buildings, with grand entrances and a stern, almost religious aura. By contrast, the Los Angeles Central Library looks like what a child might assemble out of blocks. The building—buff- colored, with black inset windows and a number of small entrances—is a fantasia of right angles and nooks and plateaus and terraces and balconies that step up to a single central pyramid surfaced with colored tiles and topped with a bronze sculpture of an open flame held in a human hand. It manages to look ancient and modern at the same time. As I approached, the simple blocky form of the building resolved into a throng of bas-relief stone figures on every wall. There were Virgil and Leonardo and Plato; bison herds and cantering horses; sunbursts and nautiluses; archers and shepherds and printers and scholars; scrolls and wreaths and waves. Philosophical declarations in English and Latin were carved across the building's face like an ancient ticker tape. Compared to the mute towers around it, the library seemed more a proclamation than a building.

I circled, reading as I walked. Socrates, cool-eyed and stony-faced, gazed past me. I followed the bustle of visitors to the center of the main floor, and then I continued past the clatter and buzz of the circulation desk and climbed a wide set of stairs that spilled me out into a great rotunda. The rotunda was empty. I stood for a moment, taking it in. The rotunda is one of those rare places that have a kind of sacred atmosphere, full of a quiet so dense and deep that it almost feels underwater. All the rotunda's features were larger than life, overpowering, jaw-dropping. The walls were covered with huge murals of Native Americans and priests and soldiers and settlers, painted in dusty mauve and blue and gold. The floor was glossy travertine, laid out in a pattern of checkerboard. The ceiling and archways were tiled with squares of red and blue and ocher. In the center of the rotunda hung a massive chandelier—a heavy brass chain dangling a luminous blue glass Earth ringed by the twelve figures of the zodiac.

I crossed the rotunda and walked toward a large sculpture known as the Statue of Civilization—a marble woman with fine features and perfect posture and a trident in her left hand. I was so stirred by the library's beauty that when Brecher arrived to give me my tour, I was chattering like someone on a successful first date.


This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.
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