October 1, 2014

The Road to the Library is Paved with Inspired Quotations

The two blocks of East 41st Street that lead to the landmarked Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the largest of The New York Public Library (NYPL)’s research libraries, have a tale to tell, but to read it, you must walk with your eyes cast down at your shoes. Inset in the pavement are 96 beautifully sculpted rectangular bronze plaques with literary quotations and whimsical illustrations.

When a patron recently sent an e-mail to ASK NYPL, the New York Public Library’s telephonic and electronic reference service, requesting the “full text” of the Library Way literary quotations, I found the question as stimulating as catnip to a tabby. However, ASK NYPL does provide its patrons with every imaginable form of public service, and as a dedicated reference librarian, I also took the assignment quite seriously. As it happens, too, the New York Public Library had a significant role in selecting the quotations, although the Grand Central Partnership, a neighborhood improvement organization funded by civic-minded businesses in the community, also solicited suggestions from eminent authors, prominent individuals, and the editors of The New Yorker.

Each plaque has a passage from a writer and a related artwork. For example, for Francis Bacon, two books are set at sharp angles to one another and each book has a “bite” taken out, accompanied by the quotation: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested . . . .” Each bronze plaque is rectangular, and each is approximately two and one half feet by one and a half feet in size.  Other quotations are from Descartes, Emily Dickinson, E.B. White, and Virginia Woolf, among many others.

This stretch of Manhattan sidewalk, from Park Avenue South to Fifth Avenue, lies in the shadow of one of the most well-known and most-trafficked streets in the world – 42nd Street. The Grand Central Partnership funded installation of the plaques and commissioned the outdoor sculptor Gregg Lefevre of New York to create them. Their goal was to provide a dash of cultural and aesthetic cache to the blocks adjacent to the more famous thoroughfare. In 2003, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed a local ordinance into law that designated these two blocks as “Library Way.”

I obtained the full text of all 96 of the literary and philosophical quotations from a wide variety of sources. However, the most pleasant (and also perhaps the most comprehensive) way in which to view the Bronze Plaques as photographs is this YouTube video. The tasteful five-minute video is set to Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque (1890) and shows photographs of a large majority of the Bronze Plaques (the videographer notes the challenge of shooting while avoiding collisions with pedestrians).

Otherwise, Lefevre, the sculptor of the plaques, has posted professionally photographed images of seven of the 96 plaques. In the YouTube video,Library Way is incorrectly called, “Library Walk” (the official name was given in Mayor Bloomberg’s proclamation).

Library Way is a wonderful way to appreciate the value of both libraries and the written word (in whatever form) to American society. Each day as I walk to work, I  enjoy reading the “full text” of many of the literary quotations. My current favorite is:

Vladimer: What do they say?
Estragon: They talk about their lives.
Vladimer: To have lived is not enough for them?
Estragon: They have to talk about it.
Vladimer: To be dead is not enough for them.
Estragon: It is not sufficient.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
“Waiting for Godot”

Matthew Boylan is Senior Reference Librarian at the New York Public Library.

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