100 Years at the NYPL

Around the corner from Grand Central Station is the New York Public Library. As I walked past the building’s famous façade and stone lions, the banner hanging from one of its regal columns caught my eye: Virginia Woolf’s diaries on display.

The library opens in the afternoon on Saturdays, and I was among the first ones inside, waiting to see some of the library’s collection on display in an exhibition dedicated to the celebration of its centennial.

I made a bee-line for Woolf’s diaries, but was disappointed to see that only one page was on display, and that her dark ink scrawl is difficult to read. I should have known this, having seen images of these hand-written pages before. But in books the pages can be magnified so that decades-old script can be decoded. I spent an entire summer in college transcribing various hand-written versions of a play by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats for a professor’s book. The ability to take the images of the originals on a DVD and put them on a big screen made the project seem less impossible at the time.

Charles Dickens' letter opener, which features his cat Bob's paw.

In any case, I spent a few good minutes with Woolf’s diaries before turning my gaze toward the other artifacts on display.

In the American corner, there was the final hand-written draft of George Washington’s Farewell Address, which was never actually delivered. (Instead, it was printed in the American Daily Advertiser in 1796. Other newspapers immediately followed suit, and a pamphlet of the text was printed as well.)

Not far away was one of the five fair (unedited) copies of the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson hand wrote between July 4 and 10, 1776.

Malcolm X’s journals were on display, and Jack Kerouac’s notes for his classic On the Road were not far away. There was a page written by Jorge Luis Borges, and a letter from Pablo Picasso.

The original Winnie the Pooh and his friends are preserved under glass in a back corner, where they have lived since 1987, and children’s books from the 1940s comprised the rest of that corner of the exhibit.

The best part, however, was the corner of British writers’ things.

There was a small lap desk of one of the Bronte sisters, along with a miniature notebook of scribblings. It brought back memories of visiting the Bronte’s house in England a couple of years ago—a cramped but upright parsonage situated between grassy fields and the cobblestone main street of a small town, complete with pubs and tea shops. The inside of the house had been dim, despite the summer sun, and the lap desk somehow bore a stamp of that environment.

And, not too far away, I found a long lock of hair, snipped by Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, mailed in an 1815 to a male companion. It seems macabre now, but it was (more) commonplace in the 19th century than it was today.

One thing that was never commonplace, however, was harboring a love of your cat named Bob so much that, upon his death, you detach his paw, preserve and stuff it, and make it a part of your favorite utilitarian object: your letter-opener.

Charles Dickens’ cat’s paw is perfectly preserved on as the handle to his letter opener, more than 100 years after Bob’s death.

Who said wandering around a library had to have anything to do with books?

Published this past week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press Newspapers. On another note, you can find out more about the NYPL’s 100-year celebration exhibit—or even visit the digital gallery—here

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