On Thursday, May 3, 1979, the New York Times staff photographer Fred Conrad visited the main branch of the New York Public Library. A crowd had gathered on the steps outside — in groups, in pairs, talking, eating. But among this gathering, a few sat slightly apart, heads bent. They appeared oblivious to those around them, unaware of the photographer’s lens. They were reading.
Even in the busiest of places, if you have a good book, you can retreat into solitude. And when you live in a city like New York, a book can be even more than a story at your fingertips. It can also be a respite, an escape, a sanctuary, a diversion and a travel companion.
Whether they’re borrowed or bought, books have always been an enduring part of New Yorkers’ daily lives. When the library’s 42nd Street branch opened in May 1911, The Times reported that more than 50,000 people visited on the first day. Since then, people have been reading not just in the building, but also all around it. In Bryant Park in 1935, the N.Y.P.L., along with the city’s Parks Department, opened an outdoor reading room, originally intended to provide books, newspapers and magazines for the jobless during the Great Depression. It ran each summer until 1943 and gave New Yorkers the chance to read while, according to The Times, “idling in the open air under the plane trees.” The Bryant Park Reading Room returned in 2003, again for the warmer months, and has run every summer since.
With the rise of paperback books came a burst of new bookstores — and with them, even more book browsing. In Times Square, an all-night Bookmasters opened in April 1962, stocking 100,000 paperbacks for early birds and night owls alike. Despite the location and operating hours, the owners of Bookmasters insisted, “We do not have one pornographic book in this shop.”
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These photos — all drawn from The Times’s vast photo archive — show that, in New York, there’s no place too busy for a book. To see someone reading in New York is to witness an act of determination. The reader has to ignore a barrage of potential disturbances, ranging from fine art to flight announcements. For those who are interested in literary trends, public spaces like subways can also be a useful, if informal, barometer of what’s popular. A glance around the train car — particularly in the days before smartphones — could sometimes tell you as much about which books were in the zeitgeist as The Times’s best-seller list.
For some, the book they chose to read was as much a part of the image they presented to the world as their outfit — a way to show off how intellectual or hip they were, and maybe to catch someone’s eye in the process. In 1906, The Times published a quartet of sonnets about a train guard who was smitten with a passenger who took the local, not the express, just to have more time to read her novel. More than 100 years later, The Times published a selection of subway-related “Missed Connections” poems taken from Craigslist. “I bought the book/but I never got your name … ,” one lovelorn commuter wrote.
If you’ve read while standing and swaying on a packed subway, you’ll know that a good book defies any posture or location. Just ask the New Yorker who risked the perils of walking and reading while crossing the Lexington Avenue skywalk, indifferent to the canyon views below, or the reader who turned the city into her own waterside living room, stretching out on a pier as if it were a couch, with a makeshift pillow under her head.
Many of these photographs, pulled from The Times’s archive, are so-called “day shots” — photos taken of scenes around the city, often capturing the weather, to feature in the following day’s paper. But seen today, these photos reveal more than just the elements. The cars and fashions have changed, and there’s a refreshing absence of cellphones. Yet the photographs of people reading — season to season, year after year — have a timeless quality. We recognize the experience of reading, even if we’re unfamiliar with the era. There’s no artifice to someone whose attention is deep in a book. They are lost in a place conjured up by the magic of words on a page.
And that literary spell starts to be cast in the earliest days of childhood. In 1923, visitors to the city’s first public library exclusively for children, the Brownsville Children’s Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, had to arrive early for story time. The Times reported that the auditorium, which seated 100, was sometimes not big enough for all the children eager to hear the stories, “one being chosen for its literary value and one for humor.”
Maybe some of those youngsters sat as attentively as this child photographed at the Van Cortlandt Library in the Bronx in 1976 — half-kneeling on the chair, torso stretched out across the table toward the reader and face tilted upward, under the enchantment of a story told in pictures and words. This is a New Yorker who could one day stand with a book on the subway, or by the East River in winter, or on the stairs of the library on a spring day. A reader who, amid the clamor of a city of more than eight million people, can still find a space to imagine.