April 5, 2012

the mercantile library

     It started with the sun shining through the living room window and onto the back of my head and my shoulders, too...a beautiful, golden light for reading.  Hours later, it would be the too-dim-light of a brass lamp which would illuminate the pages, but, still, I would finish it.  Phantom of the Opera was the first novel I read cover to cover in one sitting...and I mean one sitting.  It got uncomfortable.  I remember rising and meandering into the dining room, having turned the final page.  I had this feeling I couldn't explain just yet...of being happy and sad, all at once.  So lost had I been in that world, that, in returning to the real one, I was like a resistant time traveler being shoved forward.  I was eleven.  Only moments ago, I had been in the brooding cellars and opera houses of Paris, and now, it was time for dinner in Ohio.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                         albert pyle/executive director

        Books transport us to any time or any place to consort with anyone.  I can dwell in the late nineteenth century jungles of India with a heroic mongoose named Rikki Tikki Tavi, by opening a book.  I can dive for pearls and navigate seas of greed, evil, and sorrow, with a Mexican diver named Kino, by opening a book.  I can even take walks with fireman Guy Montag, in a future, book-less society...ironically, by opening a book.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                  kazant through krassnoff

     But they are vanishing.  Not the words themselves, but the form.  We have kindleized them.  We have  iPadified them.  We have books-on-tape-etized and screen adapted them.  I'm not sure why.  It isn't progress.  Listening to a book or even dragging your index finger across a screen to "turn" a page, to me, is like swallowing a pill which will make you believe that you are tasting fresh, ripe strawberries, rather than simply eating fresh, ripe strawberries. Where is that crisp, shuffling sound?  Why is there no smooth feeling in my fingertips?  Where is the note scrawled in the margin by some other previous, anonymous reader?

photo by steve metz                                                  case/mercantile library of cincinnati

     Personally, I have also fallen into time-sucking traps...traps of convenient mindlessness.  I have found myself too often poised over the "like" button instead of over pages, where I could have been an explorer of worlds of time and matter.  What difference does it make, I ask myself.  It's just my free time.  How is whether or not I read a book important?  The thing is.  The more I read, the more I understand triumphs and tragedies outside my own personal experience.  Looking down into a book, in a way, makes us look up from ourselves.  Books are a looking glass into the common soul of mankind.  We get to live other lives through reading.  We gain empathy for imagined people so that we can have more compassion for real people.  Yet, even with this carrot of self-actualization and enlightenment dangling before my nose, I falter and I opt for easy, and that makes me a problem for the healthy life of books.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                           first edition dickens

     Mercifully, the Mercantile Library is a timeless sanctuary for books and the culture of reading and writing.  It is a place where "progress" can not interfere with something vital or coerce it into obsolescence, and where this treasure of reading other people's words, which humanity has given itself over millennia, is well preserved in a sort of suspended animation.  It is quiet and still and lovely and, prior to a few weeks ago, I had no knowledge of its existence.

photo by steve metz                                                                        bust in sunlight/shadow

     Founded on April 18th, 1835 (happy birthday library!), by forty-five Cincinnati area merchants and clerks, which included future U.S President, William Henry Harrison, the membership library's collection, originally comprised of approximately 700 donated volumes, is now over 200,000 volumes strong.  A proportionately significant number of the works are pertinent to Cincinnati and Ohio.  Most of the books circulate.  

    The library's heritage also includes rich cultural programs, dating back to its inception.  If you have read even a modicum of required, high school literature, you have read works by Mercantile Library lecturers.  They include, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and, more recently, John Updike and Tom Wolfe.  Their stories, their ideas, their examples...they are all etched into the mural of our national consciousness and they are being preserved in their purest form by the Mercantile Library.

photo by steve metz                                          coat rack/mercantile library of cincinnati

     I make this blog because I want to discover, for myself, the people of Cincinnati who are quietly doing beautiful, contemplative things, whose voices may have been lost in the din of loudmouthed, self-aggrandizing people like Simon Leis Jr., Jean Schmidt, Larry Flynt, Jerry Springer, Bill Cunningham, and Marge Schott who, over the years that I have called this city home, have represented the most audible voices of our community's culture...overbearing voices speaking only to be heard.  Part of this journey of discovery, for me, is to embrace small changes in my life after I have these quiet, intimate experiences.  After having visited this magical, ghostly place, this place which felt like a church that I could attend and understand, this library, I am going to try two things.  The first will be to visit the basement of my own home, where most of the books are sleeping.  I will pick one up, dust it off, and begin to read it.  It will wake up in my very hands, and, I, with it.  I may even eat a strawberry.  The second will be to pony up the small fee required to become a member of the Mercantile Library.  After all, when the next Melville is standing and speaking in that grand room on Walnut Street, I will want to hear what he or she has to softly say.

Mercantile Library


  1. i love the mercantile...yes. nice blog. i too am a lover of books, the real thing.

  2. Great photos, Smetz! -Poe