Frances Wilson

Delights of the Public Catalog Room

Last September I moved to New York, where they do everything differently. For example, kale is a vegetable rather than something you feed to the pigs, elderly women wear leather jackets and leopard-print leggings rather than suits made out of thistles, and everyone tries to avoid talking about the forty-fifth president of the United States. The reason for the radio silence is not that talk of him lowers the tone, but that it lowers serotonin levels. And herein lies the key difference between Britain and America: while grumpiness is part of the British constitution, the Declaration of Independence insists not only on life and liberty as ‘unalienable rights’, but also on the pursuit of happiness. Americans genuinely want you to have a nice day.

New Yorkers understand the pursuit of happiness better than any other tribe on earth, and happiness – something I thought I would never experience in its pure, helium form – is the New York Public Library. There are ninety-two branches of this utopian institution across the city, but the crème de la crème is the marble block in Midtown, flanked by its two lions, Patience and Fortitude. I come here every day, and so too does Garrett Buhl Robinson, novelist, poet and performance artist, who unfolds his table and chair next to the fountains on the terrace and props up his ‘Meet the Author’ sign. Discussing his books, reciting his poetry and singing numbers from his musical, Garrett is a happy man, as well he should be. Everyone in New York is for sale, but Garrett’s stall is on Fifth Avenue.

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Libraries make us better people because the presence of books has a sanctifying quality. I’ve yet to see a fist fight in the NYPL or hear a raised voice. Reading the manuscript of The Waste Land, with Pound’s original annotations, or a poem by Emily Brontë on a scrap of paper the size of a stamp is by no means a requirement of library membership, although both possibilities are available. There is no expectation on readers to read: the library is simply a place in which to be.

One woman who also comes every day puts her shopping on the table in the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room and takes out her knitting. Another orders up all twenty-four volumes of Freud’s work and then plays Candy Crush for six hours. A man in a trilby with lakes of perspiration under his arms solves chess problems. But what singles out the NYPL as a bastion of liberty and equality is its tolerance of sartorial eccentricity. One morning, as I passed by the ‘restroom’, I happened upon a naked man, as shiny as a porpoise, splashing around by the sink. There was nothing uncomfortable about the encounter – I didn’t think that he would rape me. It was as though he were Adam, the library were Eden and self-consciousness had yet to be invented. And then there is the man who sits every day beneath the chandeliers wearing a black eye patch and a snow-white terry-cloth babygrow. He brings his bananas and his bag of crisps and carefully empties out his pockets. These are the regulars, but each morning brings a fresh surprise. It’s like looking up from the garden chair and seeing that the most astonishing butterfly has landed on the branch next to you.

New Yorkers understand the joy of dressing up, whether for Halloween or some more serious occasion. At night the library building hosts its fair share of such events. A few weeks ago I went to a fundraising gala at which NYPL honoured Francis Ford Coppola and Elizabeth Strout as ‘Library Lions’ – its equivalent of awarding an Emmy. The tables where babygrow guy empties his pockets and Freud girl plays Candy Crush and shopping woman does her knitting were draped in white linen, lit with candles and lined with orchids. We all sat down and ate roast lamb while Jessye Norman, standing by the dictionaries, sang a duet with Renée Fleming.

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The British Library, by contrast, is a dystopia. There is no singing or dancing or fine dining off the desks because there is nothing to celebrate; no one there is pursuing life, liberty or happiness. When it was housed in the British Museum, the library had glamour and gravitas, and there would have been some honour in being made a British Library Lemur, but its current home is as bland as a high street in Bromley. The building, unlovely to start with, has been taken over, like ectoplasm creeping round a doorframe, by overpriced cafes. Every cubic foot has been cafed: there is a cafe around every corner and down every corridor; the corridors themselves are cafes. Readers have been replaced by a clientele; Britain’s centre of knowledge is a giant frothy latte and appears to be an extension of St Pancras Station next door. When I was last at the British Library, stress levels were high and tempers frayed; a fight could have broken out at any minute. Negotiating her way through the steaming milk and paper cups in the foyer, a frantic woman with a suitcase was looking for platform 9. Directing her across the road, I told her to have herself a good one.

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There is an oft-quoted line about Britain and America being divided by a common language. I get the essential comedy of British people saying ‘crikey’ and ‘gosh’, but why is a word as banal as ‘brilliant’ greeted with gales of laughter in New York? There are other little differences: while a Londoner wouldn’t leave his living room to hear his favourite poet read his favourite poem in the house next door, New Yorkers pound around like they have restless leg syndrome. I thought this was a sign of intellectual hunger, but apparently the city’s ceaseless energy comes from its being built on the granite that we can see surging up in Central Park. Time was I’d have scoffed at such pseudoscience, but now I’m a New Yorker. This Christmas, I’ll be dressing up as Santa’s reindeer and selling off my remaindered books at a sidewalk stall. Happy Holidays!

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