Saturday, May 17, 2014

On Treasures and Treasure Houses

I was on my own today in New York City, on my own with no particular place to go and no particular person to do it with, once I’d fed the three bulldogs I’m looking after for my friend Megan. I was in danger of being paralyzed by choice when a friend suggested The Morgan Library — which is what I always suggest to people who have an afternoon free in New York City.

The Morgan Library is an extraordinary place. It is built around the personal collection of a single
man, J. P. Morgan, who was quite possibly the wealthiest man on the planet. (Among other things, he bought out Andrew Carnegie, launched U.S. Steel, and bailed out the U.S. banking system in 1907.) Morgan was curious, energetic, and acquisitive. He had the money to buy the things that interested him, and he was interested in almost everything. Once he had more than would comfortably fit in his own mansion, he asked the architect Charles F. McKim to build him a separate library next to his house, a library that would include a personal office.

“Do you figure it’s haunted?” I asked the security guard who was standing at the entrance to Mr. Morgan’s office. The office is large, but not inappropriately so — no larger than most other executive offices I’ve seen, and smaller than some. It’s dark, with red walls, dark wood and only as much light as would have been available in 1906, although the City had electric light from the mid-1880s. It’s comfortable, and decorated with the pieces I assume he liked best: among other items, a extraordinary 14th century Spanish polyptych, a 15th-century portrait that looks a little like Ian Rankin, and a portrait of the man himself.

“Oh, I think so,” the guard said. “He didn’t live very long after this library was built.” Morgan died in 1913, less than seven years after the completion of the Library. He was 75, on a trip to Egypt and Rome, and his doctors had described him as depressed. (Some have speculated that Morgan's rival, Andrew Carnegie, suffered from what would now be called bipolar disorder; I've never heard that about Morgan, but the man had earned his exhaustion.) He left his collection in the hands of his son, Jack, with the direction only that they be "permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people."

I sat for a while in the original library room (seen above), which has beautiful Art Nouveau skylights, and I thought about how everything, taken to an extreme, becomes the opposite of itself. J.P. Morgan, the richest man in the world, bought as many of the world's intellectual treasures as he could. He bought cuneiform tablets, medieval manuscripts, Thomas Jefferson's correspondence, Jane Austen's portrait. He bought Mozart's handwritten scores and as many copies of the Gutenberg Bible as he could get his hands on (three, two on paper and one on vellum). He bought ancient cylinder seals and fine Gothic metalwork. And he saved it all so that it wouldn't be destroyed, and so his countrymen would be able to come and see it, and study it, and use it to move forward so we wouldn't have to reinvent everything all over again. His extreme acquisitiveness became an unimaginably generous gift.

A case in the original library holds about a dozen examples of late incunabula — the last books created truly by hand, before the invention of movable type. Before movable type made printing (relatively) easy, it took months or years to create a book — so the books that were created were only those deemed critically important for human enlightenment or salvation. Naturally, most of those books were religious documents: bibles, Torahs, the writings of St. Augustine, prayer missals. But the Morgan Library also has a fabulous Italian encyclopedia/dictionary, because the other natural thing to do is to write down all the things you know so future generations don't have to figure these things out for themselves.

What good is that, though, if no one goes looking for the information that's been collected and recorded? Humans have learned how to do great things in our 50,000 years or so of "behavioral modernity," but every few generations, we've also done a great job of forgetting things our ancestors knew. We don't know how the Pyramids were built, or Petra, or Machu Picchu, or Mesa Verde. We haven't been able to recreate Greek fire. Here in the United States right now, we're letting our bridges and highways crumble, and some of our cities fall to ruin. We're bickering about the causes of climate change, but meanwhile doing nothing to defend ourselves against its undeniable effects.

Worse, we're assuming that because the Internet is a giant storehouse of all human knowledge, we don't need to learn things the way we used to. I'm not talking about Common Core (which I don't know much about because I don't have kids in school). I'm talking about my own habits. I don't take notes the way I used to. I don't even pay attention the way I used to, and I certainly don't learn things by heart the way I used to (although you can still try me on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" after a drink or two). I spent fifteen minutes dithering over a book this afternoon (The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald) because I couldn't remember whether I'd read it or not. I feel like I should have read it; maybe I'll get 30 pages into it and realize that I have. The part of my brain that should remember doesn't any more, because I keep a reading log in Excel. (I bought the book, because that's what J.P. Morgan would have done.) 

The advent of print killed the bardic tradition, and the advent of keyboards has killed the art of penmanship. Thomas Jefferson wrote a beautifully legible hand, which you can see at the Morgan Library. Are computers killing memory? Is the Internet killing libraries?

J.P. Morgan had the world's knowledge in one single building. Theoretically, I have the world's knowledge in the MacBook Pro on my lap. I am not sure I'm better off. I certainly don't have as nice a view.