All the men pictured wear jackets and all but one wear a tie. Most wear glasses. The women, too, are dressed formally, including the nun in full habit. No shorts or t-shirts here. A library is suffused with gravitas, like a church. One shows respect in the presence of print. It’s 1944. The Nazis burn books. Americans read them.
Alfred Eisenstaedt of Life was on assignment for the magazine at the New York Public Library. All of his subjects look serious and unaware of the man with the camera. All are focused, purposeful and unconsciously civilized. They recall a New York described by John Cheever more than thirty years later as “still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” One would love to know what these people are reading so intently. The patron in the third photo from the top, wearing a scarf, resembles the anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The fifth down looks like Elias Canetti. I have spent almost twenty-three percent of my sixty-two and a half years in libraries, public and private, nearly as much time as I have spent sleeping. No, I have never slept in a library, but with these people I feel at home.
In“Homage to a Carnegie Library,” Timothy Steele describes the reading room as a “companionable room.” That’s how I’ve thought of the library since I was a boy. I was an animist as a kid and thought of books, like toy soldiers, as autonomous creatures with lives of their own. I still do, with the good ones. In the same collection, The Color Wheel (1994), Steele includes “The Library”: “Cultural oasis? / Few would object to its conserving aims.”