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Heaven on Earth

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Fall 2001
Heaven on Earth
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William Andrews Clark Memorial Library is not just a resource for scholars and academics. Auniverse of people with a profound love of learning has found "a place of mental paradise" within its walls
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By Clara Sturak '91
Illustrations by Roman Genn

This place glistens with memories. Memories of holiday parties and a Christmas tree so tall that the painted figures cavorting on the ceiling of its reading room seemed to be reaching out to touch its top. Of the day a drunk driver crashed through its garden wall, sending bricks flying -- and furtive scholars tiptoed away with them, weighty souvenirs from their favorite literary haunt. Of a sweltering summer afternoon when, on its lawn, sweating singers costumed as stars and planets sang a 17th-century oratorio, the name of which no one now recalls, though they still remember the 12-foot cardboard sun, painted a lurid gold, smack in the center of the pageant.

To generations of scholars, students and lucky others, that is just what this place has been: a brilliant sun irresistibly drawing them into its orbit.

Far too many people have labeled the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library a "hidden treasure" for the phrase to not be considered cliché within its gates. But clichés become clichés for a reason and, indeed, the Clark is a hidden treasure. It is a world-class library ensconced behind high walls, a magnificent Old World building smack in the heart of the once-grand West Adams district, run under the auspices of UCLA and open to the public, filled with works as important and rare as a First Folio of Shakespeare, inscribed first editions of Rousseau and Keats and an unrivaled collection of letters and manuscripts of Oscar Wilde.

For those who are intimate with its book-filled rooms and expansive grounds, it is something more: a home away from home, a retreat, a secret garden.

It goes without saying that the Clark is a haven for scholars and academics, those who build their reputations on the tireless study of the obscure and the more obscure. But there are others who have discovered the Clark and made it their own. Call them civilians -- doctors, housewives, cops and Hollywood types with nothing more in common than a love of learning.

ADAM WECHSLER, an emeritus professor of neurology at UCLA, is one. He cannot contain his enthusiasm when he speaks of the Clark, which he calls his "ivory tower."

"I believe in heroes," he says. "I have lots of heroes. One of them is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. At the Clark, I was able to read from a first edition of du Contract Social inscribed by him!" Wechsler, slim and tan behind dark glasses, first heard of the Clark while teaching a course in the history of medicine. Since then, he's come to the library once a month, each time requesting to see a first edition of an important work, and spending a few quiet hours poring over it. "I've read Hamlet and Macbeth from the First Folio of Shakespeare," he says, his voice quivering with the profoundly emotional memory of that experience. "Imagine, there's nowhere else you can do that. The Huntington has one, but you can't read it."

The fact that the Clark Library makes rare volumes of such classics as The Origin of Species, Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane and works by Thomas

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