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Heaven on Earth

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Fall 2001
Heaven on Earth
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Hobbes, John Keats and the Marquis de Sade available to the general public is hard to comprehend; we're used to such rarities being treated as museum pieces rather than as literature, best viewed behind glass.

For Wechsler, who counts himself as "a bit of a romantic," actually touching and spending time with original printings enables him, he says, to "really connect with the past." The experience, the solitude of it, is something he jealously guards, and he's concerned about word of the Clark getting out. "It's a little selfish, I know, but I don't want to see a lot of people here. I've never brought anyone with me; it's something that I just don't want to share."

Drive through the gates of the Clark and the visitor is transported to a gentler time, encountering a world that could not possibly be more different from 21st-century Los Angeles, its lofty downtown towers looming just a few miles away. In the words of one aficionado, the library is "a bastion of civility ... far from the world of newspapers where there is only the ugly, the exaggerated, the vulgar." A formal garden leads to the front of a lovely, two-story brick edifice, every bit the vision of a grand European library. Inside the tall French doors, mythical figures dance on the vestibule ceiling. Enter one of the reading rooms and it's easy for one's breath to catch at the sight of the prettiest books in the Clark's collection -- volumes of all shapes and sizes that beckon with their richly colored bindings.

William Andrews Clark Jr. was a bibliophile of the first order who built the library to house his private collection. In 1926 -- eight years before his death -- he wrote a letter to the UC Board of Regents bequeathing the compound to UCLA, on the condition that none of its 13,000 volumes would ever be sold. The library is administered by the UCLA Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies, and books from that era make up most of the collection, which now totals about 100,000 volumes. The major exceptions are the Clark's vast collection of "Wildeiana," unrivaled anywhere in the world, and a formidable batch of 20th-century literature and printing from the western U.S.

Clark envisioned his gift as more than just a library; he wanted it to be a cultural center for Los Angeles. To fulfill his wish, the library has offered seminars and concerts that attract an eclectic mix of devotees, including Gail Samore. She attended her first Clark event in 1994, and has been to almost every one since. Discovering the Clark was like "stumbling into Eden for me," she says. "I don't know what I would have done without it."

Now in her mid-50s, the former elementary schoolteacher and hypnotherapist says the Clark's marathon weekend-long events have introduced her to "a certain group of people just like me who needed to be fed this stuff." The group of 12 event regulars goes by the sobriquet The Clarkies.

Although she says she's shy and "not a joiner," Samore sits on the Clark's Director's Advisory Council. She lists her all-time favorite library event as the tribute to Oscar Wilde in 1999, on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of his death. It included readings by actors John Lithgow and Juliana Margulies, along with papers delivered by Wilde scholars.

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