What keeps a person in the same job for thirty-seven years? Necessity? Loyalty? Love? Madness? Maybe all of these.
A few years ago, when I still lived in Manhattan and could walk to work, I never dreamed I would end up a commuter. Who wanted to be a suburban character in a John Cheever story, grabbing my attache case and clutching my fedora as I rushed for morning trains? But my timing is pretty good, and I rarely have to rush. Since I seem to be one of the handful of people in Westchester without a car, I walk to the Metro-North station. On a good day, with the wind at my back, I can make it to the platform in about twenty minutes. On those bleak mornings when I'm slogging through the snow or stepping gingerly across sheets of ice, there is no saying how long it will take.
What would it be like, I wonder, if I no longer had to do this?
The trip to Manhattan takes about forty minutes. Add five for the walk from Grand Central to Fifth Avenue. The New York Public Library has been my daily destination from April 1977 to the present, and if I choose to be a bit nostalgic or sentimental (or even cranky) about this fact, who has more right? Whenever I step inside, the grandeur of the architecture never fails to touch me. I am endlessly grateful for my surroundings and wonder how people manage their work days—day after relentless day—confined to offices or cubicles. By now, the interior of the library has deeply penetrated my subconscious and become part of my own interior being. Some nights I dream about the library, where it is even vaster than in actuality, great marble spaces opening endlessly into new spaces, stairways I have never seen before, doorways leading into who knows what--and yet, even asleep, this is the place where I belong.
What would it be like if I no longer had this landscape in which to spend my days?
When you walk through the streets of London, or any of the great European capitals, the sense of history is palpable. You find yourself deliciously drowning in the past. New York is different. Our history is relatively young, and the architecture you become familiar with one month seems by the next to have changed completely, usually for the worse. The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at Forty-Second Street, in the very heart of Manhattan, is a reminder that there was a time when powerful men with lofty civic goals could somehow, through a combination of money, willfulness, and pride, actually achieve them. Dating from the moment the library first opened its doors on May 23, 1911, we are now one hundred and three years old, really only a blip in the grand historical record. Yet there is something about working in this building which feels timeless. I certainly remember my earliest experiences of the main reading room. From the crowds and hustle and hype of midtown Manhattan, I entered a place of both grandeur and serenity--as large an indoor space as I had ever seen, yet one that was also strangely intimate, a place carved out of time that was also very much of the present moment.
It is interesting to have a historical perspective. Not long ago, a younger colleague asked me what the card catalogue had been like. This immediately made me feel about a hundred years old. He was writing an essay on why the online catalog we have now is so much better than the old system. Better? Something in this equation struck me as not quite right. There was a time when the walls of the Public Catalog room were lined with trays full of well-thumbed shelf-list cards. They were used by generations of people, people who had never heard of social media, whose purposes were every bit as varied and serious as ours. Nowadays, tactile experiences (other than tapping keyboards and thumbing Smartphones) are increasingly rare; but I distinctly recall what it was like to work with those cards, touching them, thinking about the generations which had used them before me, and wondering which ones had been in place on the day the library first opened to the public. Maybe the card catalog had its drawbacks; still, I am happy to have been around to experience this aspect of librarianship in its earliest manifestation, before the digital universe consumed everything.
I also remember my first experience of the stacks, those seven levels of steel shelving interspersed between the three floors of the building which housed the bulk of the library's book collection. I would stand in the center of one of the stacks, which stretched off towards 40th Street on one side and 42nd Street on the other, and even if I was only down there on business, the proximity of so many books, press after press of books, was intoxicating. Whatever else I was doing, I never failed to glance along a few of the shelves, to take down a few books and page through them, to make mental notes of what I would read in the future.
Back in the mid-seventies, the library was a shabbier place than it is now. Bryant Park was a dubious spot you might have reservations about entering. New York itself seemed to be in a state of financial crisis. But I never noticed any of it. I was having too good a time. To quote Wordsworth: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very Heaven!" He might have been writing about the French Revolution, but the sentiment is very much the same.
What would it be like, I wonder now, to be only a part of the library's past and not at all of its future?
I started to work in the General Research Division of the New York Public Library on April 25, 1977. (Jimmy Carter was president. Abraham Beame was mayor. "Star Wars" and "Annie Hall" had just premiered at the movies. Oliver's Story, the sequel to Love Story, and How to Save Your Own Life, the sequel to Fear of Flying, were both on the New York Times bestseller list.) I will retire from the General Research Division of the New York Public Library on August 29, 2014.
My job has offered many satisfactions. It is my way of engaging with the world. Although it would be impossible to guess how many people I've encountered in my librarian capacity, I can only hope that I've managed to clear up even a bit of bewilderment and confusion. For many years, I was also involved in collection development and spent a lot of time scouring publishers' catalogs and the internet's strange byways, looking for unique or obscure items to add to the library's collection. (I might be leaving, but the books I unearthed and ordered are here for the ages.) Of course, my great labor of love for the past nine years has been the series of talks on literature I've been delivering in the auditorium. As my last bit of self-promotion, I would like to mention the final four: The Passionate Brontes on June 27; Changing Styles in Children's Book Illustration on July 18; Subversive Shaw on August 15; and Edith Wharton on August 22.
People have asked me again and again what I'll be doing with myself, what my plan for the future is, and how I'm going to cope with such an influx of free time. I knew they were being kind, but I couldn't think what to tell them. And then, as frequently happens, I found the appropriate response in a book--not one of the masterpieces of literature, but an exceptional mystery novel featuring Commissario Guido Brunnetti of the Venetian police force:
"Brunetti considered the phenomenon of retirement. People in other countries, he had been told, dreamed of retirement as a chance to move to a warmer climate and start a whole new chapter: learn a language, buy a scuba outfit, take up taxidermy. How utterly alien that desire was to his own culture The people he knew and those he had been observing all his life wanted nothing more, upon retirement, than to settle more deeply into their homes and the routines they had constructed over the decades, making no change to their lives other than to excise from them the necessity of going to work each morning and perhaps to add the possibility of travelling a bit, but not often, and not too far."
Donna Leon, Drawing Conclusions