So the American public’s love of reading is declining at precisely the same moment that the stacks are emptying out at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library, to make room for a mall, or a coffee shop, or a donor-friendly rental space. Somewhere, they’ll find room to shove, deep inside, a lending library – what used to be the popular mid-Manhattan branch library just a block or so away. The funds used for the “renovations” steal oxygen away from the smaller outposts of the NYPL, many of them in poorer neighborhoods, far away from the gleaming playground of the 1% crowd. The rich get a sweet venue for their philanthropic dinner parties, and the poor and the middling get less and less and less. If there is a better metaphor for the widening canyon between those who are thriving and those who are hurting, I don’t know it.
This isn’t some silly lament for the glorious scrum of the reading room of yore, where one had to jostle for the best seat (the one with the outlet) with the homeless guy, gathering up his daily stack of encyclopedias and moving through them, a page at a time. The New York Public Library gave that homeless guy room to think. That guy and thousands of other regular people. Including me. We will miss the diversity of types who had access to that space, because we need it desperately. Every single pressing social problem – the machinelike-expansion of the prison industrial complex, terrifying health care dynamics, deteriorating infrastructure, eroding commitments to civil and human rights – demands complex thinking from a diverse reading public. And now, swept away from 42nd Street by the forces that sanitized midtown Manhattan for the kin of Thurston Howell III, my onetime table mate – the representation of that necessary, polyglot public – has nowhere left to go. To think.