Ground Zero: Build a Monument of Words

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Police attend a Ground Zero ceremony to mark the end of recovery efforts

Not that anyone has asked, but I think that a fitting and useful memorial for the World Trade Center site would be a library. Not a great, imposing library with white marble busts of Keats and Erasmus, or antique reading lamps with shades of green glass, or vaults of rare manuscripts, or stacks that rise to heaven, or stone animals out front. (James Baldwin wondered if the New York Public Library lions were posted to protect him when he was inside, or to keep him out.) What I have in mind is a regular old local branch library, with kids bopping in, and retirees bent over newspapers, and a librarian who looks very much like Laura Bush telling a teenage girl where she can find Emma.

The thought occurs in this week of the first Memorial Day since September 11 — an especially painful occasion, since the memories of those fallen in our latest war are so raw. It is as if they've just left the room. Memorial proposals such as the vertical columns of light sound good to me, too. But the reason I favor an informal little library has to do with the way our attitudes toward death have changed in recent years. That, and the fact that a library is built out of words.

It would not be the first time that a monument to war dead were composed of words. The most beautiful memorial ever imagined was probably the Gettysburg Address, whose power partly derived from a feeling of proximity to those killed in the war from which Memorial Day originated. This conscious desire to be closer to the dead started showing up in more concrete structures with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, which invites us to run our fingertips over the names of our countrymen, in effect to touch the dead. The architect, Maya Lin, said that the wall gives off reflections so that we may see ourselves in the names.

No longer are monuments conceived of as abstract obelisks or as bronze men or bronze horses. No longer do people ask who's buried in Grant's Tomb. The trend toward common man memorials is said to have begun in 1884, with Rodin's memorial to the burghers of Calais who died in a 14th century siege. America's latest memorials carry the common man impulse further toward democracy by implying an equality of status of the living and the dead.

The United States Holocaust Museum honors ordinary people by beckoning other ordinary people to walk among their artifacts. In Oklahoma City, the memorial to the bombing of the federal office building features translucent chairs arranged in rows where the victims had been sitting at their desks, to make the point that the people killed were everyone's co-workers.

In fact, we may be getting a bit quick building our memorials, in an unspoken effort to rush through a state of mourning — an offshoot of the nonsensical notion of "closure." Death occurs, and in no time up pop communal memorial gestures — flowers and messages borne to suddenly consecrated places such as Strawberry Fields and John Kennedy Jr.'s doorstep. Hasty or not, memorials have clearly become one of the nation's meeting places. The most artistic pop culture representation of this new sense of comfort is the HBO series, "Six Feet Under," in which the dead do not simply walk with the living but also chide them, annoy them, and advise them (often poorly). The theme of the series, I believe, is that six feet under is not all that far away.

Which brings me back to my library proposal, since the whole purpose of a library is to keep the dead alive. Memory is what we have of one another when we no longer have one another, which may be said of words as well. A more companionable relationship with the dead seems to diminish death's worst feature, absence. Dead quiet as a library is supposed to be, its residents are continually chatting up a storm. On any given shelf, at any given hour, Hamlet broods, Hitler rants, Plato dreams, and Grant, gracious in victory, permit Lee's men to keep their horses.

We say that our way of life was attacked on September 11. What we mean is that our words were attacked — our sauntering, freewheeling, raucus, stumbling, unbridled, unregulated, unorthosox words. All that we are in this country came out of words — 18th century words, 19th century words — which in turn wend their way back into a past that existed long before the first sentence of the Book of John. Every word is a new idea, and there is nothing like a new idea to counteract the stony madness of fanatics. If a man spends enough time in a library, he may actually change his mind. I have seen it happen.

When the Sterling Library was going up at Yale in the 1930s, there was a big to-do over the building because it was one of the more impressive modern edifices of its kind in the world. Some wag who had his values straight proposed posting a sign outside the entrance when the building opened that read: "This is not the library. The library is inside." The library is always inside. It may be the only monument we have to the things that can enlighten and advance us, and thus assuage at least some of the sorrow for which there are no words.