On May 1, 2017, the main branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library reopened literally after years of renovations. As I’ve feverishly worked on my book manuscript for the last eight months, I found myself unable to consult a needed book for an obscure fact or flip through a bulging vertical file to search for a newspaper clipping. Simply put, I had questions needing answers. And I needed the New Jersey Room Collection to provide them.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I stepped away from my writer’s garret and ventured downtown to address these questions and other new topics of interest percolating in my mind. Upon entering the library, I climbed the marble stairs to the third floor and the library’s most unique and valuable collection.
Frank Hague. The name looms large in the political culture and public imagination of Jersey City and Hudson County, New Jersey. A few weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I attended a forum exploring the man (and his ally-cum-rival John V. Kenny) at the Five Corners branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library.
The forum included: a short documentary on Hague and Kenny, an audio recording of a speech by Frank Hague, a pair of short lectures, and a panel discussion. The program was smart and engaging. Most impressively, a roving department of the public library, displaced by seemingly endless renovations of the main branch, organized the event.
As Jersey City mayor, Frank Hague dominated Hudson County politics from 1917 until 1947, delivering reliable and large blocs of votes for municipal, county, state, and national elections and leading a highly effective–albeit corrupt–political machine famous for delivering services, aiding the poor, and providing free medical care.
By the end of Hague’s political career, his political acumen had grown tired, and Hague himself failed to adapt to the changing demographics of Jersey City. Still, longtime residents and newcomers alike recount the Hague era with pride and nostalgia. Hague built the Jersey City Medical Center and Roosevelt Stadium. During Hague’s reign, Jersey City was the power in state politics and a major player in national Democratic circles. The same cannot be said about contemporary Jersey City.
While watching the film and later listening to the panel discussion, a few particular thoughts wedged themselves in my mind.
While browsing for a Christmas present for my wife at a local independent bookstore (Little City Books in Hoboken, New Jersey, which deserves its own review), I happened upon a counter display of tiny books published by Biblioasis, a small, independent publishing house in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
The books belong to the Christmas Ghost Stories series with titles by Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, M.R. James, and other authors. Each pocket-sized book includes cover art and illustrations by Seth (Gregory Gallant), the cartoonist behind Palookaville. I picked up one of the exquisitely-designed volumes. While leafing through the stitched–yes, stitched, not glued–pages, I marveled at the quality of the paper stock and the heft of the publication. This felt like … well, a true book. A valuable object unto itself.
Nestled inside the historic Payne Whitney mansion, a building designed by the legendary Stanford White, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side, Albertine Books is a bookseller located within the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Clearly conceived as a physical medium through which to promote French language, literature, and culture, Albertine offers the flaneur a delightful sanctuary from the (often maddening) bustle and noise of New York and stands as a shrine to words and ideas. While walking together along Museum Mile, my wife, my faithful companion in bookstore lingerings and haunting historic homes, introduced me to Albertine.
A statue of a young boy with missing arms and an archer’s sling greets visitors at the entrance, politely informing all guests that they are visiting a special place. The statue is a replica of the Young Archer, controversially attributed to Michelangelo himself and now housed at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Timbuktu, a city in arid northern Mali, once stood as a great center of learning, culture, and scholarship. From the 13th century to the 17th century, Timbuktu attracted students, writers, poets, scientists, and theologians from across the Islamic world. Manuscripts were collected in the city and were treasured possessions passed down in families across generations and centuries. These manuscripts explored every imaginable topic including astronomy, medicine, jurisprudence, and romantic poetry. Most of this literature was written in ornate Arabic script but also in the local and regional African dialects and languages.
Joshua Hammer, a veteran journalist, beautifully describes this Timbuktu and its culture, the attempts to develop the city into a contemporary center of learning, and then the city’s violent assault by Islamic forces in The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Admittedly, the title sounds juvenile and will surely become dated in a few years, but I imagine that an editor or a marketing executive imposed the title on Hammer’s book. Title choices aside, Hammer constructs a wonderful narrative and builds a great sense of drama. This is non-fiction writing at its best.