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  Issue Date: 3 / 2018  

On the Literary Road

Iris Brooks


       “So many books, so little time.” -Frank Zappa
       What exactly is a book? The dictionary definition is “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.” And yet audio books are spoken rather than written, eBooks require no glue, and sacred texts in the Himalayas are not bound at all. Sometimes artful pages of a book may be folded together, without a traditional spine; others may be presented as scrolls. Books–both ancient and contemporary–along with book arts are not as standardized as you might think. They may be made of plastic, Plexiglas, concrete, and even silk. A recent visit to Manhattan led me to explore both books and book art in an off-the-beaten path literary escape.
        In New York City the pace is fast and furious; people walk quickly, speak loudly, and bustle along with seeming purpose, moving in every direction. The intensity of the city is palpable. The decibel level on the streets can be overwhelming, and for me it is not a place that encourages leisurely strolls, deep breaths, or quiet reflection. And yet that is what happens when I discover a street called Library Way, where silly, serious, and sublime quotes catch my attention.
        “The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” reads a quote by Muriel Rukeyser on Library Way, a two-block stretch in midtown Manhattan. It is among 96 literary-themed, bronze plaques displayed as embedded sidewalk insets on both sides of 41st Street from Park Ave. to 5th Ave., leading the way to the NY Public Library (housing 15 million items) guarded by stone lions named Patience and Fortitude. The inspirational quotes, spanning 20 centuries with 45 writers from 11 countries–ranging from Descartes to Dickinson–were chosen by a panel consisting of literary experts, librarians from the NY Public Library, and editors from The New Yorker. The plaques were designed by urban sculptor Gregg LeFevre and awarded the Excellence in Design status 20 years ago. I enjoy his whimsical designs reflecting the content of the quotes such as atoms consisting of small books for the Rukeyser pearl or the sculpted pencils in relief adorning the plaque: “Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And the next thing you’ll be doing is writing paragraphs, and then books. And then you’ll be in as much trouble as I am.” Somehow, reading the whimsical quotes helps diminish the sound of sirens dominating this urban soundscape, which recedes into the background as I enter the Library Hotel.
       “A great book should leave you with many experiences,
        and slightly exhausted at the end.
       You live several lives while reading it.”

       -William Styron
        In the midst of Library Way is a literary hotel for readers to revel in. It’s only a short walk from the iconic NY Public Library. Imagine a hotel structured on the Dewey Decimal System of libraries. The 60 contemporary-designed rooms at the Library Hotel (299 Madison Ave, near 41 St.) are spread among ten floors, each with a different topic. Every guest room reflects the category with its in-room selection of books. You may put in room requests for your stay, but there are no promises as to where you will end up.
        We wonder if we will be spending the night on a floor with the Arts, Literature or Philosophy. Instead we are sent to 20th Century History, which turns out to be the equivalent of a war room. There are books about WWI, WWII, Vietnam War, Iran Contra, Hitler, Stalin, and Winston Churchill. While some history buffs may revel in this particular room with a military theme, I would have preferred a different perspective on 20th century history. It might feature books about the Woodstock Festival, the Beatles, the Beat Generation, Simone de Beauvoir, Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Ella Fitzgerald, Nikola Tesla, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, the Golden Age of Film, and landing on the moon. But maybe the idea that I am stimulated to think of which books I would put in the differently themed rooms, is part of the experience at the Library Hotel? I love the concept, even if it is disappointing to find a photograph of a bomb welcoming me to my room in which the throw pillow says: “Book Lovers Never Go to Bed Alone.”
        The Library Hotel offers a spacious reading room to lounge in on the second floor along with a generous, complimentary wine and cheese reception each evening and literary-themed, expensive cocktails on the rooftop terrace known as the Bookmarks Lounge. Their offerings include the Hemingway (rum, lime, mint and champagne) or Sleepy Hollow (chai tea infused brandy, cranberry liqueur, pumpkin spiced agave, and sparkling wine). Other playful drinks reference specific books: Catcher in the Rye, Like Water for Chocolate, and Dante’s Inferno. Hot off the press books, which are about to be or have just been published, are available at the front desk, which has a huge library card catalog as its formidable backdrop. As I leave the Library Hotel, I recall an Oscar Wilde quote: “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?”
       “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
        and some few to be chewed and digested.”

       -Francis Bacon
        Whimsy takes over at Alice’s Tea Cup (three locations in NYC). It’s the perfect counterpoint to staying in a military-infused hotel room. I am enchanted with the simple, yet extensive tearoom featuring specialties such as the Mad Hatter and other delicacies from the Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. While I do not spy cakes saying, “eat me,” I thoroughly enjoy the moist scones washed down with a pot of delicious, chocolate-infused chai tea. This is not a place to rush through your cup of tea, but a cafe where you will want to linger over your tea sandwiches, cookies, and scones (some of which are vegan), imbibing delicious flavors and aromas along with daydreams and art creating an air of fantasy.
       “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves
       as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

       -Willa Cather
        Sometimes a bookstore is more than a shop. The iconic Strand–which boasts its book collection in miles rather than volumes–was founded in 1927 in an area called Book Row. It is a place where you can sit in on an author’s talk followed by a Q&A session. Upcoming talks bring luminaries such as Bernie Sanders, Salman Rushdie, Harry Belafonte, Laurie Anderson, and Patti Smith to the shop. Sometimes these events are videotaped and broadcast on Book TV C-Span2 television, as was the case with Maureen Dowd (New York Times Op-Ed columnist) interviewing virtual reality founder and visionary Jaron Lanier, who wrote a newly published book, titled: Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (published by Henry Holt and Co.). The book is structured around alternating technical chapters with portions of the work telling stories. During the interview at the Strand, they discuss aspects of the book: collecting musical instruments, early automated instruments, thrown elections, alligators in NY sewers, early computers, pseudo-science, Hieronymus Bosch, science-fiction operas, Silicon Valley, medical and psychiatric applications of virtual reality, behavior loops outside of digital pacing, and the infinite possibilities of human-centered technology. Events like this one remind us that bookstores serve as much more than retail spaces, acting as stimulating places for community to gather and share ideas. That said, the Strand is known for its massive collection, considered to be a stretch of 18 miles of books.
       “The reading of good books is like a conversation with
       the best men of past centuries. . .”

       -René Descartes
        Originally at a prestigious Fifth Ave. site near Carnegie Hall, Rizzoli is now located at 1133 Broadway between 25th and 26th Street. It’s the place to luxuriate in browsing through artful, coffee table books, before selecting items to purchase. The company has existed since 1964 and in 1974 began an expanding publishing house with a variety of imprints specializing in lavishly illustrated books, many of which focus on art, architecture, cuisine, and design. In addition to its own publications, this well respected independent bookstore carries many beautifully designed books by a variety of other publishers such as Taschen, Phaidon, Assouline, and museum presses. While Rizzoli does have an online presence, the tactile experience of handling their impressive tomes in a very organized, well-lit, airy store is highly recommended.
        Tucked away on the third floor at 28 West 27th St. between 6th and Broadway, the Center for Book Arts is an intimate yet impactful place with an international scope for those involved in crafting, designing, and appreciating book arts. They promote the art of the book, cultivating contemporary views of the book as an art object with a variety of hands-on activities. Letterpress printing (including a one-day class for zine makers and poets or a month-long lab for refining printing skills), bookbinding (laced-in leather binding, hand tooling with gold, and eggshell panels for binding), stamping, stenciling, and calligraphy demonstrations in workshops and roundtable discussions are among the offerings. The facility houses vintage printing and binding presses, and a single imprint press. There are rotating exhibitions in a compact gallery as well as extended scholarships for advanced studies in book arts. This non-profit organization, which has become a model for many others scattered around the country, is a small but worthwhile place to visit on a literary escape in New York City.
        Viewing the current exhibition, I find books of all sizes from miniature to oversize crafted by a variety of contemporary artists. Some are made of plastic; others are 3-dimensional in less standard shapes with pages cut in artful arrangements. This show, curated by Gary van Wyk is “Our Anthropocene: Eco Crisis.” The title refers to the current environmental geography dominated by human impact and the resulting show of how artists respond to the ecological crises of our time is stimulating. The broad concept for this exploration ranges from Alaskan Inuktitut legends and lore in a beautiful oversized book and packing materials cataloged in a cardboard box to footage of flooding in Asia and Africa. Some of the books are carved into artful, anthropomorphic shapes. Another piece is a circular book in 6 sections, which may be housed in a hinged, wooden box with a translucent cover. Ancillary events at the Center probe concepts such as ecocide including artist talks and discussions, which relate to the exhibits. While many of the artist members are based in New York, others on the international registry are from Australia, Canada, Chile, Holland, India, Korea, Mexico, Spain, and Turkey.
       “If you only read the books everyone else is reading,
       you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

       -Haruki Murakami
        If books are treasure, then one of the true gems in New York is the Morgan Library and Museum (225 Madison Ave. at 36th St.). It is housed in a neoclassical building, an architectural landmark dating from 1906. Impressive exhibits such as “Treasures from the Vault” (through March 11) sparkle along with the permanent collections in the East Room, the original library of Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), a financier and cultural benefactor with wide-ranging taste who acquired art and literature on a staggering scale for his private library.


        This museum is home to many collections of illuminated manuscripts, early printed works including three copies of the Johannes Gutenberg Bible (the first book in the West printed from movable type), a French treatise on chess from 1300, and literary works in a variety of languages. I muse over some of the displayed items: a handwritten score by Mozart, a letter from Jane Austen (with words written backwards as a game for her young niece), and highly decorative, ancient tomes with saturated colors popping off the page. Then I catch sight of the elaborately painted ceiling and it becomes increasingly difficult to focus my gaze in one area. I feel like a kid in a candy store as I take in the offerings. The far-ranging work here encompasses more than the written word with ancient cylinder seals, etchings by Rembrandt, paintings by Picasso, and literature as well as artwork by Victor Hugo. The public is able to view items from the original collection as well as well-curated, temporary exhibits and new acquisitions. Music is also part of the mix at the Morgan, which plays host to concerts from early music and opera to baroque and bebop as well as contemporary composers such as Eve Beglarian.
        Since the Morgan Library and Museum is such a gem, it is not surprising that its founder, who covered some of his walls with red damask silk, was literally attracted to books embedded with gemstones. The intimate show, “Magnificent Gems: Medieval Treasure Bindings” displays sacred texts, some of which are studded with jewels such as sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds along with information about “notorious manuscript thieves.” Other works feature imagined gems, a decorative trend in the 16th century as shown here in a leaf from an oversized choir book from 1519. Descriptive signage informs: “While claims for the magical powers of gems may not stand up to scientific scrutiny, their transformative effect on wearer and observer cannot be denied.” Viewing the jewel-laden manuscript covers, I notice there is a hushed tone in the room. Whether looking at the sheer beauty of the offerings of the valuable treasures or contemplating the vast collection of this library and museum, the Morgan takes my breath away and brings me far from more mundane, everyday concerns. For those in search of a literary escape, a stop at the Morgan Library and Museum is a must.
       “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance
       of generations and nations.”

       -Henry David Thoreau
       Library Hotel
       Alice’s Tea Cup
       Center for Book Arts
       Library Way at the NY Public Library
       Morgan Library & Museum
       Rizzoli Bookstore
       Strand Bookstore

Iris Brooks is a cultural writer who has traveled to and written about all seven continents. She tells stories of her experiences in her print pieces and digital documentaries ranging from ice music in Norway to endangered languages around the world. Her book collection includes a children’s story in Inuktitut, an unbound illustrated sacred text from Bhutan, and a book she wrote about griot, storytelling musicians who serve as human libraries. View her collaborative work and global adventures with photographer/videographer Jon H. Davis on their Northern Lights Studio website.
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