March 13th: Coming Home


Jon and I arrived back home today– no, not to this scene, the Huntington Library, but to our far more modest library in Orinda…


Yesterday we spent all day at the Huntington Estate. Huntington was a railroad magnate who, in the early 1900s, bought 800 acres of land  of what is (now) Pasadena, and built a home, an art collection, gardens and a library. If you’re a Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln scholar, you can’t skip the Huntington.

The art (mostly British), we heard yesterday, he bought for a mere $2 million dollars at the time, but if you were to put this house and its contents up for auction, most people couldn’t touch it or buy it as a whole.

As for the library: There’s a Gutenberg Bible, a Blaue Atlas, manuscripts of famous authors and scientists etc. etc. Western civilization at its finest. But there’s also a Japanese garden, a Chinese garden, and a plethora of (imported) plants that makes your head spin. There are fifty different kind of palm trees on the estate (only two are native to California)– btw, the typical tall palm tree that you see all over LA (aka “sky duster”) is not Californian at all but a Mexican native.

The level of philanthropy is noteworthy– some people who have great wealth truly do give back and not all robber barons were/are robbers per se. In our time, Bill Gates is a worthy example. Trump was never as wealthy or brilliant as Gates, but since he’s lining his pockets right now, his government being good for his business, it’s hard to imagine that someone like him would ever give back or do anything beyond putting gold lettering on facades. Let’s not be fooled, folks, he’s not a builder or a true businessman– he’s a licenser. All he has done and is still doing is sell his name in bold letters. Except for the new health care bill. His reluctance to do so should set off all sorts of alarm bells.

Wandering through the library, Jon and I started talking about the Henry Miller book I want to write, and would need to travel for, to collections where there are Miller manuscripts and letters. I’m not quite there yet– need funding to make it happen as I have no university backing me at this point, but the ambition is there. Now I need to find a model (income/freelance model) to make it work and follow through with the discipline to make it fly.

However, first, I need to finish my campus novel– I’m about 100 pages away from the finale and once I bang those out, I’ll have a first draft, which will need a great deal of polishing and rewriting. The book is centered around a murder that takes place in a Rare Book and Manuscript Library on a university campus. Nothing like the Huntington’s. I’ll close off with a fragment of When the Ivy Prospers (working title) where Eva, the librarian, talks about her domain and sanctuary, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Briarsville University. Enjoy!

No matter her mood of the moment, Eva always savored this early-morning walk. This was her favorite part of the day– when the quiet campus seemed to be waking up, the first birds piping up and with only a few hungover students emerging from their dorms and frat houses. By the look on their faces she could tell they still cursed themselves for signing up for that 8 o’clock class. She passed Drabnell Hall, the building for foreign languages with its tired lions guarding the front entrance, and admired the ornate nineteenth-century wrought-iron gate she passed through to get to the library: she passed through it every single day, but never once took it for granted. This was her sanctuary, her life, and life was good.

It had taken her some time to get here: high school, community college, and then a long training as a librarian, but here she was now, having climbed the career ladder as one of the main librarians of the Beaufort Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Briarsville University. The library had some real gems, like the love letters Josephine wrote to her beloved Napoleon. Goebbels’s letters were here, too, as part of the ever-growing WWII collection, and Eva was particularly proud of a recent acquisition, which had cost an arm and a leg, but which was well worth the investment: a manuscript by Amelia Earhart which she had penned right before she made her last fatal flight to vanish into that mammoth ocean, the Pacific. Just as researchers were finding remains of bones and the plane on one of the deserted islands in the Pacific, this manuscript turned up also, in an attic at first, to then make an appearance on The Antiques Roadshow (Eva’s favorite show), and then… to be snapped up by BU.

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