Never Enough Libraries

November 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

books at The Morgan Library

Today we went to the Morgan Library, and saw some Degas drawings, photos taken in France just after WWI, and Pierpont’s interior library, now restored to its former glory. The Degas didn’t hold my attention, which was admittedly frantic and NYC jittery; I kept exclaiming to Charles, “I’m so sorry for all the people around me!” as I talked too loud, plowed into others attempting to use the same bit of ground, and was generally unable to comport myself among genteel multitudes.

The library calmed me. The ceiling is so high and fresco’d, the low settees so velvety red, the bookshelves full of so many editions of Dickens, Balzac, Thackeray and Zola, as well as The Lives of British Admirals and Biographical Memoirs of George Washington. There were also beloved favorites such as The Peterkin Papers, A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Life and Adventures of a Fly, and The Funny Old Woman Who Went to The Moon. Actually, I haven’t read the last two, but I’m sure they’d be worth the trouble. I tried to find them for you, but only managed to uncover scholarly references in academic journals, which required subscriptions. So you will have to write your own versions. Send me copies.

I also enjoyed his collection of ancient seals, my favorite being the Griffin Fighting Griffin Demon with A Dagger over Small Calf Below. I love that having dreamt up a griffin, they then went on to imagine a griffin demon (distinguishable by his tail and the dagger he wields); was this a griffin who’d strayed into unholy arrangements, or just the natural corollary of the griffin, all beings having a demonic counterpart?

Which brings me to the photographs of France after WWI, commissioned by Anne Morgan, Pierpont’s daughter, who organized relief efforts. The photos are haunting: indomitable old women among ruins; children playing store in the rubble; old men living in quarries; toddlers being bathed and fed by brisk young volunteers. No able-bodied men. And in the film footage, when the traveling library truck comes to town, all the children in their worn black boots run after it, leaping into the air in excitement.

Charles said, “You can see how they might think, the next time the Germans invaded, that it would be better to just give up than have to go through that level of destruction again.” Indeed. First the griffin and then the griffin demon. Not that I should malign griffins…

*Morgan was one of a group of bankers who rescued the government in the panic of 1893, supplying the Treasury with $65,000,000 in gold. One could argue that the 2008 bailout was payback; one could also argue that it’s the banks’ place to have mountains of ready cash. That was what they were invented for. But, like the rest of our cultural institutions, they’ve been failing regularly since the beginning. Just not regularly enough to plan for.

The Land of Storybooks

At evening when the lamp is lit,
Around the fire my parents sit;
They sit at home and talk and sing,
And do not play at anything.

Now, with my little gun, I crawl
All in the dark along the wall,
And follow round the forest track
Away behind the sofa back.

There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter’s camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.

These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.

I see the others far away
As if in firelit camp they lay,
And I, like to an Indian scout,
Around their party prowled about.

So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books.

Robert Louis Stevenson


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