Opinion » Column | Sept. 15
Last Sunday, I arrived at Princeton Junction around 9:30 at night. On the New York platform I recognized someone: a recent alumnus standing with a distinguished-looking couple, whom I took to be his parents. We began to talk, pleasantly. It emerged that my student’s mother had also been my student: the sort of thing that gladdens an old professor’s heart.
Suddenly life sped up. A large man had been walking up and down, speaking and gesturing oddly. It seemed he needed help — but as so often happens, no one knew what to do. Without warning he jumped off the platform, lay down between the east- and westbound tracks and began to yell. Smart phones lit up as people finally called the local police. But before they could arrive, the New York train approached the station. Though safe where he was, the large man made a dash for the platform. He missed, and fell under the train — five or six feet from where we stood, stunned.
We thought we had seen a death. But we hadn’t. The train stopped. The man, now underneath one of the cars, began to yell and throw stones from the roadbed. Conductors shouted, police scratched their heads, passengers looked as bewildered as I felt. Then my friend’s father said something wise: “Taxi.” We suited our action to his word, crossed under the tracks and let someone drive us back to the city. I haven’t been able to find out how events unfolded after we left, and keep thinking about that man in his strange agony, his world in pieces. So much for Princeton, the land of bucolic peace.
The story seems all the more strange for its contrast with the way I’m living now. This year, as fall nears, I’m not in Princeton but in New York, as a fellow of the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library. In this tiny, implausible paradise on earth, writers and scholars are paid to spend a year working in glassed-in cubicles around an elegantly furnished central space. Benign supervisors provide all the coffee and water that anyone could want and avert their eyes from our eccentric behavior. Best of all: they pay us. To sit in a library and read. Dracula is running the blood bank.
The future of the New York Public Library — or at least of its Stephen A. Schwarzman Building — has been fiercely debated for the last few years. The library’s trustees and managers plan to transform it by adding a large modern circulating collection and public working space — in the vast dark spaces once filled with the main collections of books, which they have sent to off-site storage. Many scholars and writers have objected (I have myself) to all or part of this ambitious plan, which involves removing the stacks that support the magnificent Rose Reading Room on the third floor. Demands and compromises have been made, lawsuits have been filed and no one knows what the future holds.
For the moment, though, the library is still what it always was: a palace for New York’s people, where anyone who lives in the city can sign up for a library card and see rare books and prints. Readers of every imaginable age and kind work with laptops; a few even read books. Tourists crowd the corridors. The library’s collection is still magnificent: a mass of books in every known language and from every known period. Heaps of them have already been delivered to me and my colleagues in the Cullman Center offices.
One of the Renaissance scholars whose lives and works I study, Isaac Casaubon, visited the Bodleian Library in 1613. He found it tremendously exciting. The library didn’t allow books to circulate, so all the serious scholars in Oxford worked there, and it was easy to meet them. The stock of new books was unlike anything he had ever seen. A young Jew helped him read the Talmud, the great codification of Jewish law and ritual. He exulted in his diary: “Hodie vixi” — “Today I lived.”
Casaubon took care to qualify his exuberance by writing “today.” A refugee from religious wars on the Continent, he knew that life, even the life of scholars who pore over great books stored behind stone walls, was precarious. It still is. Walk west past the Schwarzman Building and enter pretty Bryant Park behind it, and you’ll encounter plenty of homeless people and troubled wanderers. Stay in your office in the Cullman Center, and you’ll find yourself reading about the seismic changes that are shaking universities and the terrible and wonderful things that are happening in them. How to live and work, in the Center and in the world, at the same time, and how to do things that are of value in their very different terms — that’s the problem I’ll be grappling with this year.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.