Thursday, July 13, 2006

The best TBR pile ever

What’s better than a book store? A book museum! I just spent two hours in the newly renovated Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City and what a blissful two hours it was!

Mr. Morgan was a man who knew how to treat a book; he built an Italianate marble villa (designed by the famous architect Charles McKim) on the corner of Madison Avenue and 36th St. just to house his magnificent collection of books, prints, and manuscripts.

The building alone is worth the trip. Morgan’s study looks just as it did when he worked there. It breathes wealth from the sixteenth-century coffered ceiling shipped in pieces from Tuscany to the red silk damask covering the acres of wall.

The East Room is breathtaking with three levels of glass fronted book cases decorated with inlaid wood and bronze latticework. A tapestry that would cover the entire front of my house hangs over the fireplace. The ceiling has leaded glass skylights which illuminate the brilliantly painted vaults and corbels and cornices.

Of course it’s the books that matter. The Library owns not one, not two, but three Gutenberg Bibles, the first book printed with moveable type. Two were on display and it was awe-inspiring to see where the whole modern publishing business started back in 1455.

What I really love though are the hand-written manuscripts. Seeing the paper and ink touched by Thoreau, Galileo, and Mozart is beyond wonderful (although Lord Byron complained that copying over Don Juan was an intolerable bore). The teenaged Brontës wrote in such tiny letters that I couldn’t read their words at all. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese were also illegible because she wrote in a scratchy scribble in faint brown ink. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, had handwriting that was beautiful and easy to read, even though it’s in French.

Did you know that Edgar Allan Poe wrote on little sheets of paper and then stuck them together with sealing wax? A Tale of the Ragged Mountain makes a scroll twelve feet long. My daughter commented that he must have driven his publisher insane.

I was amazed to discover that Jane Austen wrote an epistolary novel titled Lady Susan when she was nineteen years old which wasn’t published until well after her death and then only as an appendix to a memoir. As one might expect, she had very elegant and legible handwriting.

Oscar Wilde was one of the first major authors to compose on a typewriter (which came into wide use in the late 1880s). Yet it’s fascinating to see his handwritten revisions on the typed manuscript.

I could go on and on but this is a blog after all and not supposed to take your entire morning to read. So I’ll just close with a comment by Charles Dickens which proves that writers and writing have not changed a bit over time. On display were his notes for Our Mutual Friend, including a chapter by chapter outline of the plot. At the end he had written simply, “Wind up the Book as skillfully and completely as I can.”

Isn’t that what we all try to do?


JoAnn Ross said...

Oh, wow, Nancy, thanks for sharing that! I now have a new Must See place when I go to NYC next spring. Did you feel drunk after a while, experiencing all those wonderful books and mss? I think I would've. Like too much rich dessert.

I never outline, and have been known to write, whenever I have to tell my editor what my book might be about, "then a lot of exciting things happen and they live happily ever after." But Dickens' line sums it all up so much better!

Nancy Herkness said...

"Drunk" is definitely a good way to describe my state after wandering amongst all those books; I was certainly intoxicated.

BTW, there's a nice restaurant there where you can eat lunch. It's in the dining room where the Morgan family ate their meals (although the furniture is quite different). It's small so you need reservations. The food is delicious and the service excellent. You should definitely visit!

I WISH I could tell my editor "then a lot of exciting things happen". I usually have an ending in mind (to give me something to write toward) but everything in between is strictly seat-of-the-pants. That's how I keep myself entertained as I'm writing: by not knowing how the characters are going to get to the end. I envy you!

Nancy Morse said...

I've been to the Pierpont Morgan Library and it's a wonderful place. Anyone coming to NYC should also pay a visit to the public library on 5th Ave. & 42 St. That place is truly a book museum. Some years ago I was fortunate enough to be taken on a guided tour of the library and into some of its manuscript rooms. Wow! What an experience. On that tour I also got to go behind the scenes at Radio City Music Hall and onto the catwalks behind the tall windows at Grand Central Station. What a privilege. You'd think it would be hard to impress a native New Yorker, but I was awed.

Nancy Herkness said...

Wow, Nancy, that was a cool tour indeed! How'd you arrange that?

Nancy Morse said...

Some years ago an editor at Health Magazine, for which I did freelance work, asked me if I wanted to join her on a tour of Manhattan. Being from NYC, I said sure, although I didn't really think I'd see anything I hadn't already seen before. Boy, was I wrong. I got to stand on the stage of Radio City Music Hall and imagine myself kicking up my legs like a Rockette (as if). The catwalks at Grand Central were scary, but really cool. I don't think they let you up there anymore. The library is awesome and, I might add, somewhat intimidating. Interestingly, though, I requested a book from them once and they didn't have it. They referred me to the Mid Manhattan branch. The tour also included St. Patrick's cathedral where I've been many times before and was even confirmed there as a kid. And Rockefeller Center. It was a walking tour and covered a lot of ground, so you can imagine that I was near death when I got home that evening.

Cheryl Bolen said...

Thanks, Nancy. I'll have to build in an extra day to the PASIC conference next March to see the Pierpont Library. Sounds wonderful.

Nancy Herkness said...

Cheryl, the great thing about the Morgan Library is that it really only takes a morning or an afternoon to see it all at a leisurely pace (although you should build in time for lunch there if possible). So on that extra day at the PASIC conference you could even see something else in NYC. (I recommend the Frick if you're into small art museums--it's another beautiful building with amazing contents.)