I love writing. I get up in the morning and more than a cup of coffee, the first thing I want is to sit at my computer and hit the keyboard. As I head to my desk, I often find myself tripping over a pile of laundry that desperately needs cleaning, as I pop it in to the machine, I notice that the kitchen needs a quick sweep and as I sweep, I realize that we’re out of bananas for breakfast. Heading to the market, I grab some dry cleaning that needs to be dropped off, and before I know it I’ve spent the day doing housework. I am someone who needs to work outside the home.
In my search for a work space, I consulted an expert…a literature professor who has spent much of his life in libraries. I listed my requirements; comfortable, airy place with plenty of natural light, an electrical outlet and wifi. Like a true friend, Karl put me in my place informing me that natural light destroys books. Expectations adjusted, we headed out. First, he brought me to Mitterand’s Bibliothèque Nationale… too big, then to the Bibliothèque de Paris André Malraux… too small and finally to his persona favorite, the Bibliothèque Mazarine… just right.
It was love at first sight. We walked up a handful of steps into an oval light well, sun dappling the black and white checked floor. The sedate spiral staircase that leads up is lined with busts of famous, blank faced luminaries. Entering the reading room, the ancient parquet floor creaked under our feet. We stopped to open a drawer from the old card catalogue cabinets and inspected one of the thousands of cards bearing intricate script that had flowed from feather pens in the 1800‘s on to now yellowing stock. They are obsolete, the system has been digitized, but the cards remain.
The Bibliothèque Mazarine was opened to the public in 1643 by Louis XIV’s advisor, Cardinal Mazarin, and it is the oldest public library in France. The library itself is relatively small with only four large tables running across the façade of the building and ten tables continuing down the eastern wing. Each table is equipped with two large reading lamps and ten embedded brown leather blotters bearing gold embossed numbers that direct readers to their assigned seats. The twenty-four foot high walls are lined with bookcases, each filled with ancient tomes from the 16th to 19th centuries. The works are arranged according to height, with the tallest books on the bottom shelves and the smallest books up in the rafters. Each row is carefully protected by hanging green baize dust covers, creating a restful symmetry that would make Martha Stewart swoon.
Between the bookcases stand ionic columns, each providing a stately backdrop to the bust of historical figures such as Cicero, Benjamin Franklin, and Molière. The entire room is topped like an inverted wedding cake by a mezzanine rimmed with iron work balustrades that visually support an additional ten vertical feet of book shelves, this time filled with collections of all the same size, looking a bit forgotten and rather forlorn up there, removed from their only source of life, the readers.
And there are windows, UV’s be damned! 18 glorious french-paned windows perhaps four feet wide and eighteen feet high stand among the columns of the bookcases. My favorite windows are along the façade and look out on to the Pont des Arts as it stretches from the left bank to the Louvre, providing passage across today’s roiling brown waters of the Seine. As I take a brief break I can watch lovers sharing an umbrella as they stroll along the quai and bemused tourists gazing skywards while crossing the historic span.
I share my new work space with men and women both young and old. Some, like myself, merely come here because it is a pleasant place to study, read, or write. Others are here for research from the more that half a million tomes that dominate this space. Many of the books here are so precious that they must be perused under the supervision of library staff. Others are furnished with two triangular pillows that serve to cradle the book and protect its spine. Strolling among the readers, one can see pages that have turned ivory with the passage of time, their brittle leaves supporting frayed and uneven edges, telling tales perhaps as rich as the printed work on the pages.
THE LIBRARY/ Bibliothèque Mazarine