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A Library Book, Or Rather a Book about the Library

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Author John Fiske set his historical novel around the design and construction of The New York Public Library’s landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Here, he explains how that idea came to light.

The Library Book, a historical novel set in the design and construction of The New York Public Library’s landmark building on 42nd Street, first published in 2006, and in NYPL’s permanent collection, is a surprising reaction to an actual experience. The Author’s Note explains that I went scuba diving in abandoned marble quarries in Vermont, and wondered where all the marble had gone. That’s the truth. I did not manufacture this story for some literary reason. The story was right there. Someone just had to uncover it!

Discovery began in 1998, a few months after my first dive in Albertson, a quarry in West Rutland, Vermont. The idea was clear to me right away, but I had no idea how I was going to get there. No idea.

First I determined which notable marble building would be at the center of my story. I considered the U.S. Supreme Court building, and several others, but fairly quickly I decided to use The New York Public Library. The Library is suitably monumental, and it represented learning and literacy, which are important to me. The architects, John Carrère and Thomas Hastings, would be the main characters.

Alden Gordon, Professor of Art History, at Trinity College, suggested that I read Channing Blake’s dissertation on the architecture of Carrère & Hastings at the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. This was the start. Subsequently, I explored every aspect of Beaux-Arts architecture. I took art classes in order to understand the minds of artists. I read Carrère’s typescript diary at the Library of Congress. I met with architects and architectural historians. I burrowed into the history of the Century Club. I visited The New York Public Library three or four times, though never with any kind of “special” access to the building, or its collections. I explored West Rutland and Dorset, Vermont, and dove in Albertson more than 30 times. During one of those dives, I realized that the quarry was inverse architecture! I formed (and rejected) many ideas, and followed just as many historical pathways into confusing wildernesses. Someone correctly advised me not to do too much; just stick to The New York Public Library. After much hard work, there was nothing left to do. The Library Book was born.

The sub-story in The Library Book is the examination of the artistic relationship: does the artist control the art, or is it the other way around? It was only through personal experience (art classes) and interviews with artists and composers that I could find an answer. Henry Peabody, as me, in the story, carries out this investigation because it was too much to ask of the character John Carrère to do while administering the construction of the Library.

While I am Henry Peabody in The Library Book, in real life I came to see myself in John Carrère, because I was writing his book, the book he never wrote, and therefore the book is very authentic. There is not another story like it within me, unless I am ambushed by another experience like diving in Albertson.

You can read more about The Library Book at John Fiske's website.

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post. View more >>

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Definitely need to read this

I love using historical fiction as a way to learn history. I will definitely put it on the library hold list!

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