I fell in love with the grand reading room of the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library long before ever setting foot in the place. The occasion was Damon Knight's Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained, the first biography of America’s great chronicler of strange phenomena.
Fort, who died in 1932, tirelessly collected reports of spontaneous teleportation, poltergeists, downpours of frogs (the one in the film Magnolia is a nod to Fort) and mysterious objects hovering in the pre-Wright Brothers sky. He wrote about them with tongue in cheek, to mock scientific confidence in the fundamental rationality of the universe. It would be fair to call him a surrealist historian. Fort’s irony went right by me at the age of 12, but I had a typical prepubescent interest in the paranormal (fueled in part by rumors that The Exorcist was so scary that it had actually killed members of the moviegoing public or driven them insane) and Fort’s biography was shelved somewhere along that stretch of the Dewey decimal system.
Fort's interest in anomaly notwithstanding, it was Knight’s description of an ordinary scene in the eccentric writer’s daily life that burned itself into my memory as vividly as any episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The passage is bit long, but as the evocation of a place and a mood it is magnificent:
“In the reading room of the New York Public Library, that mausoleum, designed by some schoolmaster with memories of hard oak, dust and gloom, there are men who sit day after day, bulwarked by stacks of books, scribbling, scribbling in the little pools of light from the green-shaded lamps on the long oak tables, and you look at them and wonder what will-o’-the-wisps they are pursuing day after day, year after year. One of them may be writing a history of dentistry in America, another studying explosives in order to blow up the world, a third gathering evidence that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Their faces are pale and grim. The only cheerful people in that place are those who do not read the books, but only handle them as they come from the dumbwaiter, and set them on the counter like mouldy slabs of beef. Those who sit at the long tables day after day are dedicated men; some of them are brave men. There is death in old books from the stacks of a great library; the dust that impregnates their pages is death and darkness; the dust says, These are books that no one has opened for twenty years, fifty years, eighty years; and when you have written your book, it too will gather dust. White book dust, bone dust: garden dirt and axle grease are clean in comparison; they are living and unctuous; rubbed into the skin, they do good. The dust of books causes blains and hangnails; ingested, it provokes dyspepsia, flatulence, and heartburn; in the lungs it is cancerous. Who would not choose, if he could, to sit chained to an oar in a Roman galley, in the sunlight and salt air, rather than in this sunless crypt where, in the years from 1905 to 1920, Charles Fort sat? Many people must have wondered why he was here behind his tall stack of books: but one does not ask. Perhaps there is another like him there today, silent and determined under the green-shaded lamp.”
Finally able to do research there 20 years later, I was disappointed to find the main reading room somewhat less gloomy than depicted. (A later visit to the manuscript archive proved more satisfactory on that score.) I was there on a hunch that there might be a review of C. L. R. James’s World Revolution in a Canadian Marxist splinter group’s newspaper from the 1930s, as indeed there was. Knight was right about dust -- the brittle paper flaked with every turn of the page. It was an experience of deep connection, both with the history I was there to study and with the countless geniuses and cranks who had worked at the reading room’s long tables down the many years.
In 2012 it looked for a while as if Fort’s specter might end up homeless. Efforts were afoot to transform the library -- to remove books from the shelves in its vast basement and send them to New Jersey, and replace the reading room itself with something more cheerful and revenue enhancing. A tourist-friendly spot, where you could get a coffee, perhaps, and check your email.
Plans to renovate the 42nd Street library only became public knowledge when Scott Sherman revealed it in a cover story for The Nation, where he is a contributing writer. Following his lead on the story, I wrote this column on the impending disaster. Anthony Marx, the library’s president, responded with an article designed to mollify scholars -- who, as my reply indicated at the time, were not falling for it.
The more the word got around, the greater the outcry. There were letters. There were petitions. The library was flash-mobbed by a group called Books Not Billionaires. The architecture critic for The New York Times weighed in on the plan and found it wanting, not to say atrocious. By May 2014, the plan was dead.
Now in Sherman’s book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, published by Melville House, we have the full story -- or as much of it as can be told at this time, given the refusal of some parties to be interviewed. The title might sound a little bit portentous, but it isn’t: Patience and Fortitude are the two famous marble lions outside the library’s main entrance. The sculptor did not christen them. The names are part of the building’s lore, coined by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and adopted by patrons.
Sherman’s deeply researched but swiftly paced account of the rise and fall of the Central Library Plan (as it was called) doubles as a record of how deeply the institution became rooted in the city’s history and folkways since it opened its doors in 1911. None of which, it seems, counted for much in the scheme that was in place on the library’s centenary.
From thousands of pages of documents he obtained under New York’s Open Meetings Law, the author reports that the CLP, “conceived in the boom years preceding the recession of 2008, was a mystifying combination of austerity and devil-may-care overreach” that “was pushed along, in absolute secrecy, not by professional librarians but by a tight, core group of wealthy trustees from the worlds of finance and real estate.”
Sherman credits the trustees with having had good intentions, but it is worth stressing that he found none of the pseudopopulist rhetoric about “democratizing the library” during the planning phase. That was secreted only when necessary, like ink from a frightened squid. Once details of the plan were made public and subject to debate, the rationalizations collapsed -- as the 42nd Street structure itself might have, given the deep architectural flaws in the proposed renovation.
Patience and Fortitude makes clear that if the library had a golden age (a decade or so on either side of World War II, by the author’s reckoning) it has nonetheless had a long history of fiscal turmoil, and of leadership that was better suited to facing the challenges before it at some times than at others. What became an issue for the first time only in the most recent crisis was the fundamental understanding of the 42nd Street library as a world-renowned cultural institution that occupies some prime real estate, rather than the emphasis being the other way around.
Stone lions alone cannot defend such a unique location. Patience and Fortitude show how writers, teachers, students and scholars intervened before things reached the point of no return. Scott Sherman’s book is certain to find appreciative readers, because it is one for readers, who desperately need an advocate once the money starts talking.
Hawaii Governor David Ige, a Democrat, on Monday announced that he would veto legislation that would permit graduate students in the University of Hawaii System to unionize. In a statement, he said: “Our administration appreciates the contributions graduate students make throughout the university system. Their valid concerns can and should be addressed internally through Board of Regents policy followed by a commitment from the university administration to implement such policy. We strongly encourage this option rather than amending state collective bargaining laws that govern management and employee relations.”
In the summer of 1996, I spent two weeks driving around Greece with my girlfriend and my undergraduate adviser. We argued all the time: me and my girlfriend; me and my adviser; my girlfriend and my adviser. One stop was particularly memorable for its unenjoyableness. We spent a day and a night at Monemvasia, a fortified Crusader town on a massive rock off the coast. The whole time, my adviser berated me to learn more about the extensive history of the place and turned his nose up at my girlfriend, who wanted to find a nightclub on the island.
To be fair, my adviser was not actually on the trip. He was in my head, or rather, I had internalized him. I couldn’t have a conversation without hearing him remark on the substance (or lack thereof) of my comments. He haunted my relationships and my thoughts. I carried him everywhere, like Anchises on my shoulders.
As my adviser would have pointed out, that was Sartre's metaphor for the superego, which he (Sartre, not my adviser) claimed not to have, his father having died when he was two. And perhaps that’s all my adviser was, a pumped-up academic superego, driving me to know more, to be less dumb, to write better.
He -- and he had a name, Antoine Raybaud, and a face: sea-blue eyes that burned when he stared, a beaked nose, broad smile and churlish gray curly hair -- would have given growth hormones to anyone's superego. His lectures were like Stéphane Mallarmé's salons, two hours of noteless improvisations on poetry and artistic creation. His seminars were fearsome: like a cat toying with its prey, he would hide the answers to his questions in ambiguous phrases, leaving us dangling in confusion. When the inevitable wrong answer was proffered, he would bat us away with a “Non, non, c’est pas ça du tout.” And then a long, oppressive silence would ensue, until another foolhardy student would offer up a sacrificial comment.
He taught in French, because this took place at the University of Geneva, where I was a student. Raybaud himself was French, a graduate of Normale Sup’, the elite French university for future academics. He had come to Geneva to replace the legendary Jean Starobinski, one of the greatest literary critics of the twentieth century. I had known none of this when choosing French as my main subject at the university. But Raybaud was well aware of his place in institutional history: perhaps he could hear Staro’s voice in his own head, belittling his lectures.
The atmosphere in Raybaud’s seminars was so tense that every detail of that room is seared into my memory. The tables, arranged in a long rectangle, with a no man’s land in the middle; the door to the hallway, at the center of the room, always slightly ajar; a mobile whiteboard in front of one window; and then, beyond, the tantalizing views of the Salève mountain and the chestnut trees in the Parc des Bastions -- their beauty all the more wrenching when students were driven to tears by Raybaud’s caustic remarks on their presentations.
I didn’t have to take his classes. Still, a tiny group of us kept on coming back. Despite the hardships, Raybaud’s classes were mesmerizing. He interpreted texts like a magician, making meaning appear where we could only see words. The seminars became less painful, as Raybaud slowly warmed to us. But he never relented in his expectations. Every single paper I submitted to him, from my first essay to my final thesis, he made me rewrite. Once, on my way to his office, I bumped into him in the hallway; he glanced at the first few paragraphs of my assignment, then handed it back, saying, “Allez, refaites-moi ça.” (“Do it over.”) I went home and spent hours trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Eventually I rewrote the entire paper; even I could tell that it turned out much better.
Natacha, Bernard and I were his last students; he retired the year we graduated. His last seminars were luxurious: we spent six months, just the four of us, reading “Un Coup de Dés.” During that last seminar, it became clear we were initiates. We had come close to being broken, but had broken through.
I often wonder whether Raybaud’s tough love wasn’t the best pedagogy I could have received. I don’t dare repeat his method on my own students. But I fear I may be failing them by being too friendly, by not pushing them to their limits, not giving them a chance to surpass themselves. This is not a teaching style for all students, to be sure. But I know that without his punishing comments, I would be a lesser scholar today.
While Raybaud did not do much to enhance my vacations or relationships, having that voice in my head, for so many years, was not always a bad thing. By forcing me to rewrite every paper I handed in, he turned me into my toughest critic. I needed to internalize him, if I wanted to make any progress. Had Raybaud merely told me what was wrong with my arguments, I would never have learned the most important lesson of all: how to spot my own weaknesses.
After six years -- which was how long most of us spent in our studies, since we paid next to nothing -- the demon who had hounded me across Greece had become a friend. We were close, if not intimate: I could never bring myself to call him “tu,” even though he encouraged me to call him Antoine. He shared his own disappointments, or what he called his “insuccès”: not failure, but something almost worse, a lack of recognition.
But his vulnerability taught me a final lesson. Anchises is not really someone else, only your own voice in disguise. Raybaud was the name I gave to a part of my mind I’ve since recognized as my own. He no longer disrupts my vacations or family life, but without his rigor, there is a side of myself I may never have discovered. Antoine died in 2012, and I never had the chance to reveal just how much I owed him. But a part of him will always be a part of me, reminding me that, no matter how painful or tiring, I should really rewrite that paper one more time.
Dan Edelstein is professor of French and, by courtesy, history, and the W. Warren Shelden University Fellow in Undergraduate Education at Stanford University.
Academic publishers and a team of Russian and American academics announced Saturday a major effort to translate up to 100 books of literature from Russian into English, The New York Timesreported. Some works may be classics in need of new translations, but many will be modern literature that has yet to be translated. The books will be published by Columbia University Press.
Scholars affiliated with the Center for Open Science, a nonprofit, have published in Sciencea set of guidelines designed to encourage transparency, accuracy and honesty in journal publications. The guidelines, already attracting support from many journals, feature eight standards and then three levels of commitment for each one, with the goal being that journals that may not be able to adopt all standards at the top level can still do more to promote transparency, which in turn encourages further studies that either reproduce or challenge findings.
Pitzer College's president, Laura Skandera Trombley, announced in December that she would leave office at the end of this month to become president of the Huntington Library. She has won praise from her board and others for setting college records in fund-raising, bolstering environmental programs and attracting more students over a 13-year tenure. But even though she is in her final days in office, the faculty voted no confidence in her this week, after a meeting in which professors away for the summer participated digitally.
Faculty members say that Trombley has disregarded the tradition of shared governance at the college. Specifically, many are upset that she did not reappoint Muriel Poston as dean of the faculty, and that this decision was, they say, made without faculty consultation. Pitzer faculty leaders say that this is a position that college guidelines specifically state shall be evaluated by faculty members and administrators. Faculty also this week passed a resolution calling for a reinstatement of Poston, who did not respond to an email request for comment.
Via email, Trombley said, "I am very happily moving to more scholarly pastures, and the college is steeling itself for what could be an acrimonious search process. While I have stayed far, far away from the search, what I see surfacing is a struggle between who will lead the search and, by implication, the college."
She added: "Due to my outgoing status, the board felt it prudent and responsible in its legal and governing role to determine whether or not the dean of the faculty's contract should be renewed. Based upon the board’s careful review, as well as their deep belief in shared governance and careful adherence to the faculty and board bylaws, the board passed a motion that the dean of the faculty's contract should not be renewed. The dean was informed of the board’s decision by the board chair. The dean has tenure, and the board offered her a year's paid sabbatical. She was not fired. The board chair sent a written message to the faculty, and some faculty were upset about the board's action. The faculty met, voted no confidence in me on the basis of inadequate 'shared governance' (and let's face it, an easy vote with my immediate departure) and demanded that the dean be reinstated."