Room 315 and the Great Depression

September 16, 2009

The New Yorker books blog reported that, going against  national trends , the New York Public Library has extended operating hours at ten branches.

Alfred Kazin wrote about working away at his first book in the central library’s main reading room during the Great Depression years (alongside Richard Hofstadter) in his memoir, A Jew in New York. “Street philosophers, fanatics, advertising agents, the homeless—passing faces in the crowd.”

Room 315 was Kazin’s regular haunt, now in all the tourist guidebooks. It actually prompts one of the most incredible descriptions of the act of writing in print.

I liked reading and working out my ideas in the midst of that endless crowd walking in and out of 315 looking for something; that Depression crowd so pent up, searching for puzzle contests, beauty contests, clues to buried treasure off Sandy Hook; seeking lost and dead and rich relatives in old New York  books of genealogy and Pittsburgh telephone books.  Reading in the midst of this jumpy Depression crowd, I, too, was seeking fame and fortune by sitting at the end of a long golden table next to the sets of American authors on the open shelves.  I could feel on my skin the worry of all those people; I could hear day and evening those restless hungry footsteps; I was entangled in the hunger of all those aimless, bewildered, panicky seekers for “opportunity.” I must have looked as mad to them as they did to me: jumping up with excitement and walking about the great halls as I discovered that just for the asking I could obtain all the books anyone would ever want to read by William Dean Howells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Joseph Kirkland, Robert Herrick, Ed Howe, Henry Blake Fuller, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London. I could read the mind behind each book. I felt connected with the text. There was some telepathy working between me and the invisible person, the omnipresent mind, that had put down these words.  I was hungry for it, hungry all the time. I was made so restless by the many minds within mmy reach that no matter how often I rushed across to the Automat for another bun an coffee, to fuel up at those stand-up tables for New Yorkers too harried to eat their food sitting down, I could never get back to my books and notes, “BACK SOON, DO NOT DISTURB,” without the same number pains tearing me inside.  There was something about the vibrating empty rooms early in the morning—light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning the smooth tops of the golden tables as if they had been freshly painted—that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves.  My book was building itself. The age was with me. “ON THE DIFFUSION OF EDUCATION AMONG THE PEOPLE REST THE PRESERVATION AND PERPETUATION OF OUR FREE INSTITUTIONS.”


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