Sunday, June 26, 2011

The New York Public Library: They Got Their Claws Into This Show

The three exhibition photos are courtesy of The New York Public Library. The paw is courtesy of Charles Dickens.

By Mitch Broder

There’s a good chance that I will never write anything like “David Copperfield.”

But at least there’s no chance that I will ever open my mail with my dead cat’s foot.

These were my fleeting thoughts when my esteem for Charles Dickens was fleetingly shaken, at the centennial of the New York Public Library. Among the artifacts on display are one of Dickens’s copies of that novel — and Dickens’s letter opener, whose handle is a paw from his pet cat Bob.

My technique as a writer is to feel inferior to other writers, but Dickens, in his greatness, allowed me a moment to stand tall. I, too, loved my dead cat — in fact, all three of my dead cats — but I’d sooner festoon my bicycle seat with his fluffy tail than head to the mailbox grasping his disembodied paw pads.

Of course, a paw handle wasn’t quite as creepy in Dickens’s day. Death was more rampant then, and people routinely did things like take pictures of their dead relatives and make brooches out of their hair. Still, I felt evolved, even if I haven’t yet thrown out my dead cat’s snack dish, not to mention my dead grandfather’s epsom salts.

You can experience your own evolution at the centennial exhibition, cagily titled “Celebrating 100 Years.” It’s filled with surprises unearthed from the library’s collections. (It marks not the founding of the library, which occurred in 1895, but the opening of its grand main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.)

The show is curiously divided into four themes: Observation, Contemplation, Society, and Creativity. The first three address topics like The Heavens and Earth; Self-Reflection and Spirituality; and Political Movements Around the World. That’s why I headed straight for Creativity. It’s the theme that comprises the Beatles trading cards.

I saw the Royal typewriters of S.J. Perelman and E.E. Cummings, and wondered if changing my first name to initials might help. I saw a handwritten score by Beethoven, and wondered how he was able to create such masterpieces with nineteenth-century music notation software.

I saw a lock of Mary Shelley’s hair, and the Beatles card where they have crewcuts. I saw a dime novel, some dance cards, and a letter to Cocteau from Piccaso. I saw the prompt copy of “David Copperfield,” which Dickens used for public readings. And I saw the letter opener. It’s engraved “C.D.  in memory of Bob 1862.”

Despite its company, it is probably the most diverting piece in the show. Needless to say, other visitors are creeped out by it daily.

But I can’t judge a great writer for having a macabre souvenir. And I certainly can’t judge him for loving his cat. I can judge him only for his role in making me feel inferior. And, more important, for naming any cat Bob.

“Celebrating 100 Years” is at the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Streeet, through December 31.


  1. Not that I'm a fan of the name Bob but it is a nice solid name; easy to spell but solid. As for "making me feel inferior" might I remind you that no one can "make" us feel a feeling, but rather that we choose how we feel to any given time? Thanks for sharing this interesting show. Nice outdoor shot too!

  2. I'm trying to convince myself that the cat paw letter opener is akin to a lucky rabbit's foot. So far, it's not working!

    By the way, "cagily titled"...very nice. Regarding "surprises unearthed from the library's collections..." -- perhaps the paw letter opener should've remained "burried." A handwritten score by Beethoven...that's a treasure.

  3. Lisa sounds just like my Dad. Blah, blah, blah, Lisa.

    Terrific opening. Love your writing. Love it! Especially..."I, too, loved my dead cat — in fact, all three of my dead cats — but I’d sooner festoon my bicycle seat with his fluffy tail than head to the mailbox grasping his disembodied paw pads." Also think "Death was more rampant then" is great.

    I have my grandfather's fingernail that fell off after he slammed it in the car door. Does that count as macabre?

  4. By the way, excellent photography.