I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Beverly Hills library. I go there almost every day, laptop in hand, impelled by the irrational idea that this is the only place in
the world where I can finish my new book. I also have an office with a great view and a house that’s empty and quiet all day where any normal person should be able to sit and work just fine, and yet, I have to get up and drive 15 minutes every morning to sit among dozens of strangers — some more strange than others — to find my focus.
If you ask my husband, he’ll tell you this is an improvement over the ritual I had to follow for my last novel: With that one, the only place I could write was in my car. That was uncomfortable for me and terribly embarrassing to my children, nothing like this library with its polished wood tables and designer lights, Kelly’s Fudge Factory and rows of hardcover books on sale for $1 each. It makes me wonder where I’ll end up with the next novel — if, indeed, there is a next novel.
I don’t know if all the talk about the impending demise of books and bookstores as we know them is true — if in 10 years, every book ever written will in fact be available online, as Google would like, and if even Barnes & Noble, the 800-pound gorilla of publishing, will indeed have succumbed to the Kindle. I don’t know if this library will still be standing in 10 years, or if it will be squeezed into digital archives instead. I think technology is a good thing: I remember when I and every other writer I knew insisted we would never switch from the typewriter to the PC; nowadays, I’m thinking of adopting my MacBook as my fourth child. And I don’t worry much about the future of storytelling either: People used to do that by drawing on cave walls. The manner of delivery changes, but not the task itself.
Still, I do wonder every day, as I walk through the lobby and up the steps to the “quiet area,” where else in this city one could find a group of regulars as diverse and eclectic as what we have right here. There is the usual contingent of homeless people with books and magazines in their hands, and the throngs of noisy kids who flock in around 3 o’clock. There is the glamour babe American woman in the leopard-print sweater who sits in the same armchair every time, looking like Catherine Deneuve on the set of some intellectual French film, and the young Asian couple who walk everywhere together, hand in hand and smiling like they’ve just been crowned homecoming king and queen. There is the blue-eyed Iranian girl on the second floor who stays immersed in her books for hours at a time, the red-haired librarian who wears gloves all day and moves around as if she is in perpetual hurry to save some priceless manuscript from being destroyed by callous readers, the elderly European woman who yells when she thinks she’s whispering, because she’s hard of hearing and so is her companion — and they get offended if anyone asks them to keep it down — How could you possibly hear us? We’re practically murmuring.
I wonder where all these other people would go if the library closed down, if all the books vanished into Kindle and newspapers were available only online, if the librarian put her gloves away and the kids lost their afternoon hangout. I used to be one of those kids, years ago in Iran, when I spent every recess and lunch hour in our school library. The boys would take over the yard to play soccer, and the girls all sat in the classrooms or in the stairway and talked about what they had watched on television — all the American sitcoms and soaps, “Bonanza” and “Days of Our Lives” and “The Wild Wild West” — the previous night. I couldn’t go outside, and I couldn’t participate in the girls’ conversations because I wasn’t allowed to watch TV on school nights, so I went into the library, where I was often alone — not even a librarian — and where no one cared what I read. I loved the books, yes, and loved the reading, but this was also the one place in the world where being alone did not mean you were weird.
I don’t know why any of these other patrons come to the library every day, but I have a feeling it isn’t just the free books and online access, and it certainly isn’t the tap water sold in plastic bottles as Kelly’s Water. I think we all come here to take refuge from one thing or another, from loneliness or the weather, from an unhappy family life or too many siblings at home, a long, empty day and nothing to fill the hours with, or 500 pages full of words that may or may not make sense, may or may not have a life outside of my MacBook, may or may not constitute a book.
So much has changed in the world since my middle-school days in Tehran. I believe most of it has been for the better, and that what lies ahead will be an improvement still. Then again, so much of what drives and defines the human psyche, of our needs and anxieties, has remained constant. I hope we can find a way — at least as far as books and newspapers and that unique and extraordinary solace some of us draw from places that house them — to tend to the psyche as we pursue change.
Gina Nahai will moderate a panel on the future of books and writing on Thursday, March 11, 6 p.m., on the USC campus. For more information, call (213) 740-3250 or visit college.usc.edu/mpw.