I recently resumed work on my acid western, The Devils that Have Come to Stay. It’s set, as you may know if you’re reading this blog, in 1848, when the first tremors of the Gold Rush were shaking through California. The reason I chose this time period was because the era of the world’s mad scramble for a rock deemed valuable seemed like an excellent setting for a piece that’s largely anti-capitalist, and also because the acid western genre is notoriously hallucinatory, and the way California changed so rapidly in such a short period of time easily lends itself to a shifting, morphing landscape.
When I started off writing the piece, I knew very very little about that period of time. Some of the topics I researched were the topography of California in the 1840s, what people ate and drank during the Gold Rush, the treatment of immigrants from various parts of the world, the composition of immigrant populations, what San Francisco looked like, Native American culture, symbolism and storytelling, what the role of women in the time period was, the prices of things, how gold was mined and the genocide of Native Americans (an example of these statistics is that something near 5,000 Native Americans in California met violent deaths at the hands of settlers in a 20 year period of the 1800’s, to say nothing of those killed by disease).
A few of these topics I was able to research on the internet, but many required books. I bought tons of them on Amazon.com, but last year I moved unexpectedly, and some of my book were lost and some are still in storage. So I went where any good, book-loving New Yorker would to continue my research. The New York Public Library.
I was in midtown for an appointment on my day off, so I chose the Schrwartzman Branch, or, simply, “the main branch.” The one with the lions out front. The one you may remember from Ghost Busters, or, if you’re more literary, from the Elizabeth Bishop poem “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”:
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms
The New York Public Library’s main branch is like a publicly accessible grad library. In fact, one of the books I ended up using was someone’s master’s thesis from the University of Southern California from 1932. You search out your books, then you fill out little slips of paper, three at a time, and a librarian (the one there when I went was a classy woman covered in beautiful tattoos and reading Things Fall Apart as she sat behind the desk) asks you to pick a seat in the reading room where they can be delivered. I was kind of sad to see that many people appeared to be in the reading room to use their computers rather than to read books, but I guess that’s the nature of the times.
Oh, but the books. Their wonderful, well-kept almost oak smell, the smell that has the same soothing properties to me as the smell of sage or incense burned in a church or temple must have to others. I literally opened the books and inhaled as deeply as I could. I looked up mid-way through to make sure no one was watching, but they all seemed engrossed in their Mac screens. All the better.
Libraries are a holy place to me. They have been since I was a kid. The neat rows of books, all in order, all treated with regard and respect. All with their exact spots and catalog numbers. The librarians tending them. The people borrowing knowledge and then putting it back for someone else to find. In my acid western, the narrator describes the saloon he owns in similar terms:
When I consider the disagreements, the drunken men, and the long hours, the word “sanctuary” seems a strange choice, and yet I let it stand. The saloon is a world where everything has an order, a world unlike the one outside its doors. The cracked glasses for strangers and for the men who always break glasses will forever be on the left half of the shelf behind the bar. The good glasses will always be on the right and go to the less rowdy regulars. The whisky bottles will always be in order from least to most expensive, except for when it is so busy I lose track of order. John and Daniel will play cards night after night at the table by the door, mostly quietly, sometimes cursing one another. George will unerringly show up at 4 o’clock and drink for hours before speaking a word. Smithy will drink until he sings old songs into his whisky glass. These are things I can count upon.
It’s beautiful to have a place like that in the world. It’s even more beautiful when it’s free and open and for the good of the public.
Budget cuts are threatening libraries. I’ve been signing petitions and talking to people about this. But even though there’s a stack of letters in the library for people to send to their senators, the library doesn’t feel like it’s been threatened. It feels as stable and solid and unchanging and protected as ever. And this is the reason I love the NYPL, it’s main branch or really any library. Kind of like the way Holden Caulfield loved the Museum of Natural History.
And, also, there was that time that my friend and I made up a tour of all the spots in Ghost Busters and went to them. But that’s another story.