Reflections in the New York Public Library
The famous Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library is closed for renovations, so I find myself at the great wooden tables in the Edna Barnes Salomon Room surrounded by portraits of famous and not so famous men in formal dress: Astors, mostly, and others, from donor families presumably – though there’s a painting of Truman Capote in a white hat I find intriguing. There is a bust, too, of Raoul Wallenberg and the grand painting presiding over the hall is a blind Milton dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters.
I sat outside not so far from the lions on the steps of a statue I did not turn around to view (that turned out to be the elaborate base of a flag poll) and ate my lunch with my daughter who works nearby. We watched the tour buses pass with passengers shooting their snapshots, FDNY trucks doing important looking things, and people from all over the world eating lunch while brave pigeons drew near for stray crumbs.
Inside, on the third floor, the reading room is quiet. Laptops abound. Ironically, my book is one of surprisingly few in this reading room. I cannot but help think of the many who have occupied these rooms through the years.
Outside this reading room is the McGraw Rotunda showing Prometheus bringing fire to humanity – the light of knowledge, in this context. Four giant panels cover the walls, two on each side bracketing the doorways to the reading rooms: Moses engraving the Ten Commandments, monks transcribing manuscripts, Guttenberg printing his Bible, and what appears to be a man with a newspaper. They witness to the history and importance of writing, books and learning.
We don’t build buildings like this anymore, soaring monuments to visionary ideas: the value of knowledge and the democratic ideal that access to knowledge should be available to all.
Maybe we don’t have such soaring vision anymore.
I spent yesterday at the Old Stone House where 400 men from Maryland boldly attacked 2,000 British troops in a delaying action that allowed – thanks to wind and fog and obediently quiet soldiers – the Revolutionary Army to escape the Brooklyn battlefield in what would surely have been a quick and decisive end to the American quest for independence. Washington watched the battle from the top of Cobble Hill. General Howe tore down that hill after the escape of Washington’s army. Now it is a Trader Joe’s, occupying what had once been a bank, surrounded by shoppers and parents walking their children home from school.
Monday evening is the first presidential debate and I am sure it will have its fair share of bluster and half-truths and proposals for one program and another. I fear it will lack the soaring vision.
Democracy is a rare and precious idea in human history. Our societies have been monarchies and oligarchies, enforced by armies and blessed by religious institutions, protecting the privileges of some at the expense of most. That is the norm in human experience.
We should not let the vision of a free people bound together in a covenant of liberty and mutual responsibility perish from the earth. Where mutual responsibility is lacking we end in oligarchy. Where liberty is lacking we end in tyranny. Covenant recognizes how we benefit from one another – and what we owe one another. Covenant recognizes that I will yield some freedom for the common good knowing that in the common good my freedom is preserved.
I do not pay for the services of a fire department only when my house is on fire; I share in a common expense recognizing that fire spreads and, unless someone stands ready, it could destroy us all. I pay for roads – not just that I may travel freely to market, but that all may travel freely. At that market I can buy your beets and sell my corn and we are both enriched. If you take all the water from the river or pollute it with trash, all who live downriver are impoverished and then you are impoverished. So, too, if I take all the fish from the sea. Covenant requires that I keep the water pure and the air clean and the soil fertile. Covenant requires that at some fundamental level I recognize our connection and interdependence. I cannot set myself above or against the community without destroying it and so myself, whether I am knocking down ancient rock formations or manipulating the banking system.
The public library is a monument to this noble idea that knowledge is precious and should be available to all. It proclaims the value of learning and recognizes that as learning increases we are all raised higher. It is a temple of sorts, yet one that doesn’t hoard esoteric secrets; it offers them freely to all.
What a privilege it is to sit in this public space. And what an obligation. In this temple I am summoned to a noble life. I will plant no bombs. I will hide no truth. I will leave no trash. I will mute my phone. I will honor the community that is present today, was here yesterday and will be here tomorrow. I hear their voices remind me that our fortunes are intertwined.
The Maryland 400 marched 551 miles in 21 days to offer their service to General Washington. Fewer than a dozen survived. They did not perish for private greeds; they lived for the common good.
We must be worthy of their sacrifice.