Since it opened in 1911, the building has become a New York City landmark, praised not only for its beauty but also for its functional brilliance. In the words of one contemporary architect, the main branch of The New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street is "a perfect machine for reading." The grand Reading Room sits atop seven levels of iron and steel books stacks whose contents could, at one time, be delivered to anybody who requested a book within a matter of minutes via a small elevator. Those stacks also support the floor of the Reading Room above.
Financial support for The New York Public Library, however, was never as firm as its structural underpinnings. In a gripping new book called, Patience and Fortitude (the title, of course, derives from the names of the two iconic lions that guard the Library's entrance), reporter Scott Sherman details how deficits and bottom-line business logic very nearly gutted one of the world's greatest public research libraries.
Sherman's slim, smart book is packed with a colorful cast of moguls, celebrities, intellectuals and internet crusaders, and it springs from a series of cover stories about the library that Sherman wrote for The Nation magazine starting in 2011. Patience and Fortitude not only tells a classic "New York story" about real estate and money, but also shines a light on why libraries, as physical repositories for books, are still crucial, even in an age when all knowledge seems just a mouse-click away.
In part, the crisis of The New York Public Library stems from the fact that it's a weird entity. It's not a state or city agency; instead, the library was founded as a private, nonprofit institution. It's always been governed by a board of trustees typically drawn from Manhattan's 1 percent.
In 2007, that board decided to build up the Library's coffers by selling off other mid-town libraries under its control and by clearing the stacks of the 42nd Street library of its three million books, which would be transferred to a storage facility in New Jersey. The landmark New York Public Library building would then undergo a modernization.
Sherman says that what the trustees saw as updating for the digital age, critics saw as "nothing more than a series of tawdry real-estate deals", which would result in a nightmare vision of a hollowed-out library, where patrons could sit, sip coffee and read digitized books on their e-readers.
Those critics were at first composed of a small band of writers, scholars and preservationists, easily dismissed as "elitists." After articles about the library plan by Sherman and other journalists began to appear, masses of New Yorkers along with celebrities like Al Sharpton, Gloria Steinem and Salman Rushdie piled in.
The late eminent architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable deserves special mention as a heroic voice of the opposition forces. Sherman says Huxtable was 91 and in failing health when the controversy erupted. Stonewalled by library officials when she initially tried to research the renovation plan, Huxtable persevered and wrote an excoriating essay for The Wall Street Journal in 2012. Responding to the library officials' argument that modernization was needed because only 6 percent of print sources was being read every year by patrons, Huxtable said:
"If we could estimate how many ways in which the world has been changed by that 6%, the number would be far more meaningful than the traffic through [the library's] lion-guarded doors ... [A] research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success."
Huxtable died a month after publishing what Sherman dubs this "thunderbolt" of an essay. It's a passionate defense of The New York Public Library; but, also, by extension, it's a defense of reading, the humanities, and all those other things whose value can't be measured by Facebook "likes" or dollar signs.
Last year, the library renovation plan was defeated, but as Sherman reminds his readers, the future is still uncertain. The library's famous stacks may still stand, but they're empty; the three million books that were sent to New Jersey haven't been returned and some are now missing. Sherman's charged account of the battle over the library is a shock to the system, alerting his readers to the dangers of indifference. In addition to Patience and Fortitude, the New York Public Library — like libraries everywhere — could probably use a third guardian lion, called "Vigilance."
Back in college English, I was taught that it was a foolish error to think that fictional characters have any reality beyond the page. You shouldn't speculate about how many children Lady Macbeth had or what job Holden Caulfield wound up doing as a grown-up.
Well, maybe not. But over the last half century, actual fiction writers have enjoyed lifting characters from famous books and fleshing out their lives — you know, Jean Rhys telling the back-story of Rochester's mad wife from Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea, or Tom Stoppard making bleak comedy out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. The best of these works reveal truths hidden in the original books and give voice to those kept silent.
Few writers have done this so skillfully as the Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud. In his first novel, The Meursault Investigation, he reworks a text that almost everybody has to study in school: The Stranger, by Albert Camus, himself born and raised in colonial Algeria. This tour de force forever changes the way you see Camus' novel.
You may recall that The Stranger is narrated by a French Algerian named Meursault, who begins the book by half-heartedly attending his mother's funeral. Not long after, he goes to the beach, and for reasons even he can't explain, winds up shooting a young man he calls the "Arab." Meursault is convicted of murder. Not for shooting an innocent Arab, mind you — the French routinely got away with that in their colonies — but because the D.A. basically prosecutes him for not properly loving or mourning his mother.
Meursault's motiveless crime and the irrational reasons for his conviction made Camus' novel a classic expression of Existentialist notions about the individual's confrontation with an absurd universe.
Daoud's book stands Camus on his head. It's narrated by Harun, the brother of Meursault's victim, who was seven when his older brother was shot down. Now an old man in present-day Algeria, Harun offers a version of events that anchors this murder in history, not cosmic philosophy. It becomes a form of restitution.
For starters, Meursault's victim is spared the indignity of being a mere prop in his own murder. He's given the dignity of a name — Musa — after simply being called "the Arab," a word used 25 times in The Stranger. And he's given the dignity of a personality as well — he's a strong young man with a taste for women. His death, which Camus's book isn't remotely interested in, is shown to alter his family's life for decades. Musa's mother becomes obsessed with her dead son, eventually forcing Harun to exact a brand of vengeance.
In simple terms, The Meursault Investigation spotlights the historical realities of colonialism that The Stranger left in the shadows. But Daoud's too canny to be satisfied with simply critiquing Camus. He also learned from Camus, especially his ideas about individual responsibility. What makes Daoud's book so good is that, steeped in independent thinking, it offers an illuminating, if controversial portrait of today's Algeria.
To that end, Daoud invents a second murder — this time of a Frenchman who pointedly is named — and this crime's ripples lead Harun to ruminate on Algeria's tragically absurd history. Even as Harun acknowledges the soul-warping tyranny of French rule, he uses his story to ponder how the Algerians themselves have made a mess of things since independence in 1962. They've devoured the countryside to no good purpose, fetishized an earlier generation of freedom fighters, and fallen into a fervent Islamism that keeps them backward. "Religion is public transportation I never use," Harun tells us jauntily, presumably echoing Daoud's own sentiments.
Not surprisingly, such lines have made Daoud enemies in Algeria, where there have been the now-routine calls for his death. Of course, such an excessive response to a fine novel only serves to underscore the historical absurdity that The Meursault Investigation is talking about. Harun may be wiser, more conscious, and more humane than Meursault, but these two fictional characters share one important quality in common with the real life Kamel Daoud. Walking the streets and beaches of their Algerian homeland, they all feel like strangers.