For three years on rainy mornings when I was a high school student, I stood under the awning of a building near Madison Avenue in New York, waiting to take the 79th Street crosstown bus across Central Park to school. Not being especially inquisitive, I never looked up at the awning. Had I done so, I would have read the words "New York Society Library."
Fifteen years later, a friend presented me with a membership in the library, the city's oldest. It was founded as both a membership and public library in 1754. How that generous gift transformed my life.
On my first visit, a librarian at the front desk informed me that members had access to the book stacks, a privilege found in few big libraries.
I enjoy reading plays, so I headed for Stack 9. Shelf by shelf, over a period of months and years, I reveled in "feasts of literature," in the words of Samuel Johnson, reading plays of Ibsen, those of the French playwrights Jean Giraudoux and Jean Anouilh, and those of Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O'Neill, and Tennessee Williams.
Chekhov's plays led me to his short stories - hundreds of them translated by Constance Garnett - in Stack 5. As a result, Chekhov became my favorite writer. (On my office wall, a picture of Chekhov now shares the place of honor with Lincoln.)
In the narrow stacks, which have low ceilings and electric timers, I came upon library treasures. For example, a book whose author was identified only as "C.3.3." - the prison cell number of Oscar Wilde - the book being "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."
I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.
Albert Camus wrote of "multiplying horizons and expanses" when he entered a library. My experience exactly!