Number-Crunched

The tiny kingdom of Manhattan is one governed by the quiet tyranny of numbers. Its citizens, scurrying among the skyscrapers like ants along the valley floors, seem to have no escape. A never-ending stream of decimal points and percentage signs, vertiginous graphs and mathematical models of the most terrifying complexity pulses and throbs through Wall Street, that jugular vein of the Western World, while through the city’s lesser arteries and capillaries flows a no less baffling form of arithmancy, underlying the property prices which hold the entire population gripped in their thrall. As the property market continues to rise and fall, it seems like some 3 million people are teetering on the edge of some grotesque paternoster, being forced to jump in at the moment when they are least prepared.

The casual visitor to this Emerald City is as susceptible as its most jaded resident to the workings of the all-powerful spirit of Oz. Why? Because the city becomes virtually impossible to navigate unless one has at all times running through one’s head the orthogonal coordinate system on which it is built. One does not catch a cab to a neighbourhood restaurant; one directs it to the corner of 42nd street and 6th avenue. The museum you visit is irrevocably and eternally to be found at the one and only corner where 75th and 3rd meet. Your hotel, if you are lucky, is at 58th and 5th.

Which is why, in this most Cartesian of cities, one develops such a strong need to seek the shelter of the Letter instead of the Digit – the Word instead of the Number. And it comes as an overwhelming relief to find that at its very heart sits a temple to the written word in all its forms, the imposing edifice of the New York Public Library.

The Stephen A. Schwarzman building would definitely make the shortlist of most frequently televised New York buildings. Everyone who has ever watched a film or TV series set in the city will recognise its enormous marble columns and the two stone lions which placidly guard its entrance. This is the central building of the New York Public Library, located on 5th avenue between 42nd and 41st streets. And it is currently celebrating its centenary.

On a date in 1911 which Wikipedia will verify for me as soon as my internet connection resumes, this neo-classical warehouse of learning opened to the public. Over the past century, the Public Library has amassed one of the largest collection of books on the North American continent, many of which are stored within the library as well as in a subterranean warehouse beneath Bryant Park. As Erwin Hatfield Anderson, directorof this august institution from 1913 to 1934 is quoted as saying: “If the Devil himself had written a book, we would want a copy.” And it is in this spirit that the Library has organised a display of artifacts to commemorate the Schwarzman building’s centenary. It is a phenomenal and deeply fascinating tour of our literary heritage.

The exhibition feels like an all-you-can-eat buffet conducted simultaneously at all of the world’s most expensive restaurants. Every object represents a glorious high point or an unparalleled nadir in the history of human achievement. There was, in short, a lot of stuff on display, and the fact that I couldn’t take any pictures means that this post could end up being far more text-heavy than it really needs to be. Never mind the fact that it’s already about three days late.

So what I’ll do is highlight three of the objects that happen to have stood out in my mind; though an excellent catalogue to the exhibition is available online for any punishment gluttons out there.

First: An original first edition of John James Audubon’s ‘The Birds of North America’. 

While being most famous to geeks such as myself through that song of Tom Lehrer’s, the Audubon Society is essentially the American equivalent of the RSPB – an institution Jeremy Clarkson high-lariously refers to as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds. It gets its name from this remarkable 19th Century ornithologist and artist, whose catalogue of North American birds is to this day considered an example of the potential intersection between high science and high art.

The copy on display at the Public Library is what is referred to in the trade as a ‘double elephant folio’ – which means that it could easily pass for the grander sort of patio. It is an absolutely enormous book – but then again it would have to be, as all the birds contained therein are drawn to life-size.

This is obviously one book I can’t suggest you get a copy of – though it would be ideal for hosting those late summer barbeques.

Second: Charles Dickens’ Letter-Opener.

When I saw this particular object on display in its glass case, I thought I was looking at some ceremonial tribal machete. But apparently not. Apparently Victorian letters did indeed come in envelopes the size of French Windows, and one needed to use a bread knife to convince them to come unstuck.

Not only is this implement roughly the size of my forearm, its soft furry handle is formed from the soft furry paw of Charlie’s favourite soft furry cat. After, I hasten to add, it met its soft furry (and presumably natural) end.

A thoroughly revolting piece of equipment in every aspect.

Third: Parson Weems’ Biography of George Washington.

Now, I will happily admit that this item amused me for entirely personal reasons. I realise that some of you may not be aware of the significance of this book, so I will attempt to explain with as much brevity as I can squeeze in to the remaining space.

There is a well-known story about the young George Washington in which the dramatis personae are the above young George Washington, a cherry tree, an axe, and the father of the aforementioned young G.W. While the latter was out at a PTA meeting, the former is said to have used the axe to chop down the cherry tree. When his father came home and saw what had happened, the soon-to-be-President broke down in tears and claimed “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet”. A touching, if slightly nauseating, story, made none the more palatable when it was revealed to be a bit of retrospective political spin invented by the Maryland Parson Mason Locke Weems.

What made me laugh about the book, however, was not its deceptive political back-story but its typography. As I am sure you all know, in the early days of printing the character ‘s’ was often represented by a peculiar sort of integral sign which looks remarkably like a contemporary ‘f’. This makes all 17th to 19th Century authors sound as though they have the most colossal lisp.

Liften to me, my fweet, fweet fon – I furely do forgive this defpicable fin you have performed. Come. Rufh into my armf fo that I may kiff you.”

That sort of thing. One gets used to it in time, of course, and having come across it so often in scans of Shakespeare’s first folio I’m pretty inured to it in a literary context.

But just seeing it like that, totally unprepared, had me literally fplitting my fides with laughter.