A reader’s best retreats in Los Angeles

(This is a repost of an entry I submitted at GoneReading.com — visit the site and help do some good for worldwide literacy!)

Ask people what first comes to mind when they think of Los Angeles, and there’s a good chance they’ll say, “driving.”  If you ask a native, they may say so, too.  In a kind of resigned mutter.

Los Angeles is the 20th century automotive city: the triumph of the car over topography, centrality and distance.  Which mandates sitting in your automobile for long stretches of time, getting from Santa Ana to Thousand Oaks, or from Irvine to Encino (OMG, that’s a haul!).

And since I moved here from Chicago, that’s meant not being able to read on the way.

Major eastern cities with long commutes and public transit systems allow unique opportunities to dive into a book while you’re waiting to reach your station.  When you’re in a car, though, audiobooks are, IMHO, a slight (and pricey) substitute for being able to pull last week’s New Yorker or your dogeared Ed McBain out of your backpack.

But Los Angeles is still a city with plenty of readers. You’ll find them in the coffeehouses of Los Feliz or Studio City.  Reading scripts.  Running lines.  Diving into self-actualization guides (yes, we do that out here.  You would, too).  Or actually reading honest-to-God fiction.  There are plenty of iPads and NOOKs to be seen, and plenty of people hunkered down over them in places like Starbucks or the indie spots like Alcove or the Bourgeois Pig.  Sitting on a sculpted, landscape slope at the Getty with the city laid out below you is a spectacular venue, as well.  If you want to leave the city in your dust and read under the open sky, it’s a remarkably convenient trip to the recesses of Griffith Park or Topanga Canyon, too.

But my favorite spot (so far) to read is one that, frankly, surprised me.  It’s purpose-built for readers…and it’s symbolic of present-day struggles: The Los Angeles Central Library is a monument, a veritable temple, designed in 1926 by Bertram Goodhue.  The mosaic pyramid atop this landmark makes you think of shrines of antiquity, as it was meant to; its sleek,Modernist/Beaux-Arts is gorgeous and timeless, its interiors spacious and cool and replete with reading rooms, nooks and benches.  It’s a throwback to a different era, and I get a sense of real retreat into a more cloistered place, mentally and physically, when I enter it.

The library was thoroughly revamped after fires in 1986 that did massive damage.  Expansions over the years have added depth and facility.  But every library in the L.A. system faces the budgetary vise that’s affecting civic libraries across the country.  The place is closed on Sundays and Mondays, hours curtailed on other days, and there’s the constant mutter that libraries may be antiques, that the Web and e-reading make them superfluous.

But the temple allusion holds, in my mind.  Libraries are about people coming together in common cause. If you atomize reading and libraries too much, you lose part of their purpose – the singular sense you get that you’re among people who are there to read, to learn, to explore the stacks for a book that’s an exploration in and of itself.  Anyone who’s ever perused a checkout card knows what I’m saying.  In a city like L.A., already scattered and partitioned in so many ways, libraries like the Central are essential glue in making this city – or any other — seem like a community.


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