A few years ago, I read an article about the hidden apartments once found in many New York City libraries. At the turn of the last century, the libraries were heated by coal, and live-in caretakers were needed to tend to the fires. Once the heating systems were upgraded, the custodians were no longer needed, and these days, the former living spaces have gradually been repurposed.
However, for a book lover, the idea of living in a library sounds undeniably romantic—especially now, when many libraries have been closed to the public for months on end. (My local library is still only allowing curbside pick-up.) The Lions of Fifth Avenue tells the story of a family that moves into the brand-new library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911. Jack Lyons, the superintendent, oversees a staff of 80, since it takes a lot of people to keep such a majestic building running; his wife Laura and their children, 7-year-old Pearl and 11-year-old Henry, live with him in the “white fortress.”
“Laura hadn’t realized how remote their lives… would be. There were no neighbors to wave hello to each morning, as there had been at the brownstone where she grew up, nor picnics down by the river… Instead, just an endless parade of anonymous visitors who came in to see if the building lived up to its reputation for grandeur and beauty (the answer was always a resounding yes).”
Since Jack spends every spare moment of time working on his novel, Laura feels lonely and frustrated by the constraints of life as a wife and mother, so she decides to go to journalism school—Columbia has just opened a few slots for women. However, Jack finds himself in trouble when several rare books are stolen from the library, including the exceedingly valuable Tamerlane and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe.
The Lions of Fifth Avenue features a parallel story set in the early 1990s, as Sadie Donovan, Laura’s granddaughter, who now works at the same library where her grandmother once lived, is also dealing with rare book thefts. Initially, it seems far-fetched that the crimes could be related, but Sadie decides to investigate her family’s past, including the life of her grandmother (who died before she was born), to see if she can learn more.
Sadie and Laura are both captivating protagonists, and the library background makes this a fun read for book lovers and fans of historical fiction, offering a fascinating peek behind the scenes of one of New York’s most storied institutions.
Keeping the theme going, Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is set in a very different sort of library: one that lives only in the mind of Nora Seed as she teeters between life and death. Nora feels that her life has been one disappointment after another, and when her beloved cat dies and she loses her job, she decides to commit suicide. After taking an overdose, she finds herself in the Midnight Library, presided over by her old grammar-school librarian, Mrs. Elm. In this very personal library, Nora finds an untold numbers of volumes; “every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived,” explains Mrs. Elm. “To see how things would be different if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”
If Nora pops into another life and is disappointed with the outcome, she will return to the library. If she’s content, she can stay in that life until she dies of old age. So Nora starts living: in one life, she’s a world-renowned Olympic athlete; in another, she’s a scientist studying climate change in the Arctic; in yet another, she married her former boyfriend and they opened a pub together in the English countryside.
I often find myself ruminating over past choices I now regret, both large (why didn’t I spend a year or two living in New York or Stockholm when I was younger?) and small (why did I park directly under that tree which shed yellow pollen all over my car?), and I’m fascinated by the many-worlds interpretation (why did I wind up in the universe where Donald Trump was president?), so the premise of this book hooked me. However, when Nora lands in a new life, she has no idea what her counterpart has been doing, which causes a lot of confusion; in the scenario where she’s an ex-Olympian, she’s about to go onstage and deliver a motivational speech to a huge roomful of people, which is a literal nightmare. As a rock star, she’s asked to play her biggest hit, but of course she doesn’t know it. How can you give a life a fair shake if you are disoriented and perplexed the whole time?
Still, the last few pages of this book are joyous and quite profound. A sample, taken from a social media post written by Nora after she exits the library:
It is not the lives we regret not living that is the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy.
We can’t tell if any of those other versions would have been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on… We just have to close our eyes and savour the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song as it plays.