Your Guide to the Alexandrian

Planning Your Visit

            The savvy traveler will not miss a chance to visit the New Alexandrian Library just outside of Richland, Connecticut. Founded in 1923 by railroad tycoon Leopold Hirschfeld, the Alexandrian has become the largest private lending library in the country, visited by thousands every year. Although the library’s staff refuse to confirm any estimate of the total number of books held within its walls, science blogger Gary Smithson has estimated the figure at over twenty million. If true, this would surpass even the Library of Congress, making the Alexandrian one of the largest libraries in the world.

            (Sidebar: The staggering number that Smithson calculated might actually underestimate the true figure, considering rumors that the Alexandrian’s underground archives—off-limits to the public—are actually larger than the surface library itself. Read on for more information…)

            Beyond its vast collection, the Alexandrian is also famous for its architecture. The original seven halls (or wings as they are called) have been cited as the most exquisite examples of Neo-Gothic Romanticism in the country. They stood unaltered for six decades until a series of expansions was undertaken in 1987, starting with a titanium-and-glass annex by Frank Gehry in 1987 and culminating in the travertine pavilion by Santiago Calatrava in 2004. The extra space became necessary because of the staggering number of visitors the library attracts each year.

            Best of all, thanks to the enduring generosity of the Hirschfeld Foundation, the Alexandrian’s lending services are free to residents of Connecticut. The rest of us may purchase a check-out card for modest annual fee: $50 for adults, $20 for students.

2. Getting There

            Parking is impossible. However, at the back of this brochure, you will find a list of Richland hotels which offer free shuttle service. As a last resort, most local cab and Uber drivers are familiar with the destination. (Note: some unscrupulous cabbies will append a 20% “surcharge” claiming they have to cross the city limits. Don’t fall for it!)

            If driving oneself, be aware that the library can be difficult to find even with GPS navigation. This is thought to be due to a geo-magnetic anomaly within the bedrock beneath the site, although some crackpots have suggested an alternative (and rather ridiculous) explanation. But regardless of how you get there, your first photo opportunity will be outside the main building, at the famous sculpture Venus on the Gulf of Aden. Commissioned from the great English sculptor Michael Ashburnham, the Venus looms over an olivine reflecting pool like the Greek goddess. And yet, despite the sculpture’s enormous scale—nearly five meters tall—the figure appears as a slender, almost ethereal creature, frozen in bronze, her head tilted hopefully upward as she opens her palm to the water.

            (Sidebar: when the statue was first unveiled in 1922, there could be no doubt as to the historical figure on whom it was modeled—Hirschfeld’s elder half-sister, Alex. A famous poet and bon vivant of the Gilded Age, Alex Hirschfeld had already been dead twenty years when Hirschfeld commissioned the piece, but such was Ashburnham’s genius that he was able to capture the essence of the young woman as she had been in life.)

            Just past Venus, you will find the library’s two main entrances. The first is set into an authentic Roman arch, taken stone-by-stone from the ruins of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus’s villa in southern England. The doors, three meters tall, are fashioned of solid iron, protected by a copper glaze. The second entrance is a pair of simple oak doors, equally tall as the bronze. They are stout and unpainted.

            Whichever doors you choose, you will probably find yourself lingering for some time in the main lobby. At ten meters high enclosure, the lobby was hewn entirely of speckled Italian marble known as pezzanavo. Its windows contain over twenty tons of glass, so thick that they have a prismatic effect, bathing the room in various shades of red, orange, and indigo. It’s not surprising that the writer Susan Sontag once described the space as “overwhelming, a sonnet of stone, recited under a crystalline sky.” Many visitors spend half an hour simply turning circles in the great room before they finally look up and behold, at last, the renowned dome. Also made of marble—albeit of an entirely black variety—it seems to consume all the light and color of the lobby below. You might suffer an unexpected wave of vertigo looking into that void, until your eyes adjust and see, at last, the pin-point blaze of tiny stars. These are actually five-inch cylinders of quartz, drilled through the marble to the sky above, fragmenting the sunlight into a thousand glittering shards.

3. The Staff

            Library staff are known for their courtesy and helpfulness. A broad variety of friendly faces—young and old, beautiful and ugly—will greet you. Divided evenly between men and women, their number is said to represent all the nations and races of the world, joined by their common love of reading.

            (Sidebar: One interesting quality of the staff is that many of its members seldom leave the property, even in their off-duty hours, preferring to remain on the spacious grounds, residing in the dormitories at the south edge. To our modern sensibilities, this might seem an austere, almost monastic existence. And yet many of these men and women spend their entire adult lives at the Alexandrian. It is not uncommon to see an extremely old specimen puttering in the stacks, happily arranging books or helping a wandering patron.

            (Inner Sidebar: As you may have guessed, a small cemetery awaits at the north end of the grounds. Its first occupant was Alex Hirschfeld herself, whose remains were relocated there in 1922, the week before the library opened. Two decades later, in 1943, Leopold himself was laid next to her. Both graves are capped with simple, identical headstones, which read: a mari usque ad mare.)

4. The Wings

            The Alexandrian is divided into seven wings. These are named, simply, the North American, South American, European, African, Asian, Australian, and Antarctic. (Note: The Antarctic is different from the others; more on this later). The six standard wings radiate outward from the main building like spokes in a great wheel, each identical in shape and consisting of a single, long hall, twenty meters high by forty meters wide by one hundred meters long. Bookshelves stand perpendicular from the central passage, effectively dividing the hall into twenty-two transepts. Each shelf stands eighteen meters high and is divided into three levels, the second and third levels being accessible via wrought-iron spiral staircases and narrow walkways. At the head of each shelf stands a granite pedestal, two meters tall, bearing a marble bust of a famous scholar, writer, or political hero from the wing’s namesake continent.

            The wood used in each wing is specific to its continent. The shelves for the Asian, for instance, are crafted entirely of cherry wood, lacquered a deep red. Their beauty is unequaled except, perhaps, by those of the African wing, built of striped palmaletto (Zebrawood), which is known to sweat droplets of moisture. It is said that on spring mornings, when the staff throw open the windows to the breeze, these droplets evaporate and infuse the air with the scent of a savannah.

            Each of the standard wings terminates in a large open reading area, furnished with six tables hewn from the same wood as the shelves. Some of these tables are themselves historical artifacts. If you run your fingers down the leg of the northernmost table in the South American wing, you will find the word “numinous” carved there, a memento left by Vladimir Nabokov in 1952. Many other famous writers have visited the Alexandrian, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louis Borges, Elizabeth Bowen, Saul Bellow, Iris Murdoch, Italo Calvino, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike. William Faulkner was once found sleeping under a table in the European wing. In 1958, a very old Ernest Hemingway got into a brawl with a very young Kingsley Amis in the South American. (Both men were asked to leave.)

            As if the bookshelves were not amazing enough, the granite walls of each wing are paneled in elaborate boiseries, with raised moldings of stone indigenous to that continent—e.g., Arizona sandstone for the North American, onyx for the Australian. The South American, European, and African wings are of obsidian, malachite, and lapus lazuli, respectively.

            The Asian, of course, is clad in pale jade.

            Thanks to Hirschfeld’s meticulous planning and inexhaustible wealth, each wing stands as a kind of monument, blazing with the textures and colors of its continent. The exception, of course, is the last wing, The Antarctic, which differs from the others in so many ways.

5. Missing Persons and Other Phenomena

            In the last two decades, many strange incidents have occurred at the Alexandrian. Among these are five officially documented missing persons, whose last known location was the library. These are, in chronological order, Mr. James Meckleson, a scholar from the University of Rhode Island; Mrs. Angela Dunn, a housewife from Florida; Ms. Claire Nichols, a lawyer from New York; Mr. William McTeague, also a lawyer from New York; and Mrs. Sally Tullufson, a history teacher from Iowa.

            It is important to underscore that foul play is not suspected in any of these cases. Rather, the authorities maintain that all of these people vanished intentionally, perhaps to escape the dreary grind of their daily lives. Even so, the suddenness of their disappearances, along with the fact that none has ever been located, ensures that the mystery will remain alive in the imaginations of credulous folk. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the library somehow absorbed these people—some would say devoured them—as if the library were itself possessed of some malevolent, living entity. What nonsense!

            More prosaically, several high-profile thefts have occurred in the library. In 1961, a Gutenberg Bible was stolen from a display case in the European wing. In 1983, a bronze bust of the outlaw Ned Kelly was taken from the Australian (an amazing feat, considering the statue weighed nearly two hundred pounds).

6. Scholars

            Strange as it might seem, some academics who visit the Alexandrian find themselves staying for prolonged periods of time, returning day after day. These often pale and disheveled individuals become familiar to the staff and are often a subject of curiosity, if not sympathy. However, most of these scholars are misunderstood.

            Take me, for example. I—your humble author—first visited the Alexandrian twenty-three years ago whilst researching my Ph.D., and I have since made it the focus of my life. For a time, I rented an apartment in Richland, but I soon found it advantageous to live in a camper in the woods not far from the library grounds. I bathe and wash my clothes in the Silver Creek and take my meals in the Library Commissary. It might sound like strange existence, but for a person devoted to research such as myself, it has been a kind of bliss, although tempered by a growing desperation to discover the next secret, the next piece of the puzzle. (More on this below….)

            If you were wondering how I obtain money to pay for the few outside necessities I require, suffice to say that family and friends make the occasional donation. Also, I earn a small but steady income selling bulk quantities of brochures—exactly like the one you hold in your hand now—to local hotels and tourist centers. (Ironic, isn’t it, that my P.h.D. committee chair once said I would never be published? Ha!)

            As one of the Alexandrian’s most dedicated scholars, I have made more than a few discoveries about the library, bits of information that are not generally known. One of these involves a common thread that links the missing persons described in the previous section—a connection that has never been found by the police or the families involved.

            It has to do with the archives of the Alexandrian.

7. The Archives

            The library’s archives remain off-limits to the public. Even so, a few impressions have leaked out. One remarkable story from the Boston Herald claims that beneath each wing of the library lies another wing—a mirror image, identical in size and shape, the only differences being that the walls are naked rock, hewn directly from the granite that underlies that part of the state, and the bookcases are made of ordinary oak. This secret wing is, like its public counterpart, packed floor-to-ceiling with rare volumes and other treasures.

            If true, this means that the Alexandrian’s holdings are far vaster than is commonly known. More importantly, it implies that an entirely separate, unexplored Alexandrian exists beneath the one we all know.

            I, myself, have never seen the archives. But I am hopeful that one day I will be granted that honor. In the meantime, rumor has it that Hirschfeld designed various passages which lead down into the archives, whose entrances are cunningly hidden in the walls of some of the wings. I have run my fingers along the edge of every bookcase in the library and have yet to find the secret trigger. Still, I will keep searching, even though the quest is not without risk. (More on this below…)

8. The Antarctic

            The Antarctic wing is not accessible directly from the main building. Rather, one must reach it from a narrow stone corridor extending from the tip of the South American. Ironically, the Antarctic is the largest wing, housing the Dewey Decimal subjects 000 (“Science, Knowledge, and Systems”) through 200 (“Religions”), and was built as a single enormous, circular room. The curved walls are windowless and oddly fluid in design, as if created by wind-blown snow. Each is covered in frosted glass, lit from behind by argon bulbs that emit a cold blue glow.

            (Sidebar: According to archives of the General Electric Corporation, the lights were custom-made to Hirschfeld’s specifications and were among the first argon lights ever created. This attention to detail was typical of Hirschfeld, who designed the wing himself. The library’s chief architect, the great Manhattan builder Josiah Marsh, was perhaps annoyed by this abrogation, but it is unlikely that he made an issue of it. Hirschfeld was, after all, paying him a fortune.)

            One can only assume that Hirschfeld’s extreme interest in the wing lay rooted in his own real-life experiences. The details remain murky, but we do know that Hirschfeld made at least four expeditions to Antarctica, first in 1901, just a few months after Alex Hirschfeld’s death. Unable to cope with his sister’s tragic and somewhat scandalous demise (she died in Paris of an alcohol-induced seizure, precipitated by her love of absinthe), Hirschfeld purchased an old freighter called the Southern Belle and spent a huge sum outfitting her. In December, the Belle set out with ten crewmen, including Hirschfeld himself, the soon-to-be-famous surgeon Bernard Merton, the great Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache, and an Inuit scout named Aguta.

            The voyage from Punta Arenas took three weeks on storm-raked seas, until finally they came within sight of the Larsen Ice Shelf. As fate would have it, a late-season storm arose and prevented their landing. A week passed without relief. Caught in the freezing winds, the Southern Belle was soon trapped in a carapace of ice. One can only imagine the mental state of the crew during this period. Supposedly, Dr. Merton spent hours stitching the name of his lover into the palm of his hand, while Aguta plied his tattooing services to members of the crew, including Hirschfeld, who henceforth wore an eagle-in-flight on his upper arm.

            Finally, the storm let up. The ice was chipped off, a landing was effected, and the team set out onto the shelf with twenty Alaskan huskies to pull their sleds. Three days passed, and they made good progress. But then something extraordinary happened: Hirschfeld disappeared.

            His companions searched for an entire week, finally giving up on January 27, 1902. Just as they were preparing to turn back for the coast, Aguta ventured out one last time. He returned a few hours later carrying Hirschfeld, half-dead from days of cold and starvation. Despite his condition, his frost-bitten fingers clutched a small, cloth-wrapped item to his chest, which he refused to relinquish even when Merton administered an injection of adrenaline. (Taking a more traditional approach, de Gerlache urged a bit of brandy down the young man’s throat, with a similar lack of effect.) They dragged him back to the ship on a travois that Aguta fashioned from a camera’s wooden tripod. All the while Hirschfeld said nothing, staring at the horizon and gripping his mysterious bundle, still wrapped in cloth. Occasionally, he muttered a single word: “Impossible.”

            On the return voyage to Punta Arenas, his powers of speech returned, but he would say nothing of his days alone on the ice. Like the contents of the cloth, the story would remain his secret.

            Three years later, in 1905, he became the third man in American history to amass a fortune of one hundred million dollars. That Christmas, he sent a check for $10,000 to each of the crew members from the Southern Belle expedition, all of whom received the money with gratitude. Except, alas, for Aguta. His check could not be delivered, for he had returned to his homeland in the Yukon, and no one knew his whereabouts, not even the elders of his tribe.

9. The Red Tower

            The only archive above the surface is in the form of a slender tower, three stories tall, adjacent to the Antarctic wing. Despite its height, it is barely visible from the main grounds, and it seldom captures the attention of the casual visitor. Made of brick and known to library staff simply as The Red Tower, its pedestal is engraved with the words PRAETERITUM – FUTURAE.

            Speculation abounds. Some say the Tower contains a lost folio by William Shakespeare. Others believe it holds a three-thousand-year-old papyrus scroll written by King Solomon (whose history was another of Hirschfeld’s many obsessions). Or perhaps a fully functioning Antikythera mechanism, the ancient computer discovered off the coast of Greece in 1901.

            The most compelling rumor is that the tower houses a single artifact: a small, dark crystal called the Ravenstone. Supposedly, this was the item that Hirschfeld found in Antarctica, all those years ago, and brought back with him to his camp. It might be the remains of some ancient meteorite, which fell upon the frozen plain when the world was young. Despite its dark composition, the stone is said to emit a faint blue light when looked at from the correct angle.

            Even more fanciful stories say that the Ravenstone has mysterious powers over time and space. Some claim, for instance, that the reason the library is so hard to find is that it changes its physical location in the Connecticut countryside, like one of those wandering islands from the old sea legends. Still others claim that, should a person gain possession of the Ravenstone and learn to control its power, he would achieve dominion over the entire world. One is reminded of the offer that Satan makes to Christ: “All this can be yours.”

            Some may find these legends far-fetched, even ridiculous. And yet, many people believe them and act on them. Some search for one of those secret passages I describe above, and especially an entrance to the Tower itself. Clues as to the location of such an entrance, as well as to the operation of the Ravenstone itself, are said to be scattered throughout certain books in the library, either in the text itself or in the marginalia that is so often found (alas) scribbled in library books.

            Some believe that these hypothetical clues—if they exist at all—were left there by Leopold Hirschfeld himself, as part of some devious plot. One book in particular is said to be an original edition of A World of Ice by Adrien de Gerlach himself, the sole copy of which has been missing for decades and is thought to be mis-shelved somewhere in the Antarctic wing.

            In line with these notions, some believe that those individuals who have gone missing at the Alexandrian were actually searching for this book but instead found something more sinister. A hidden trap, perhaps. Or some temporal void that one might stumble into and never escape.

            But how, you might ask, could these ordinary people have discovered the legend in the first place?

            I thought you would’ve figured this out by now. For the answer, Dear Reader, is in your very hands! These curious yet luckless people learned of the lost book from me. That is, from a copy of this very brochure. For they, like you, were among the fraction of a percent of the general population who still have an attention span sufficient to read to this point—this last, fateful section.

            Of course, only a portion of this already tiny percentage will take any of my words seriously. The vast majority will simply grunt, smile, and toss this brochure into the nearest trash can. And even of those who believe me, most will be frightened and will never visit the Alexandrian, steering their cars onward to New York City or Chicago or wherever their final destination lies.

            But a few—a glorious few—will be enchanted. They will find themselves compelled to seek out the mysteries of old Hirschfeld’s library and divine the power of the Ravenstone, even if the risk is great. They will come, their spines kindled with the fire of curiosity and imagination. For knowledge never comes without risk, yes? And every true reader is, in some subtle but undeniable way, an adventurer.

            And so, my friend, the question remains: What kind of adventurer are you?

Ash Clifton