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Nathaniel Sandler

In his essay “Blindness,” Jorge Luis Borges explains the process of becoming blind, and the irony of simultaneously becoming head of the National Library and losing his vision. There is a moment when, as he is wandering the stacks, we learn that the man who saw libraries as “a kind of paradise,” and is now in charge of the largest in Argentina, is unable to read a single word. Humbled, Borges ultimately concludes that blindness is a gift, describing the condition “as a way of life: one of the styles of living.”

There is only one subject at the Mary and Edward Norton Library at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute of Miami. It is not a universal library, like the Library of Congress with its 150 million objects; it is a niche library of ophthalmology. Bascom Palmer’s founder, ophthalmologist Edward Norton, started the collection shortly after the eye hospital opened in 1962. The library has over 15,000 books lining the shelves. The main draw, particularly for someone not versed in the intricacies of eye surgery, is the rare book room, which has around 3,000 books and manuscripts dating back to the 15th century, dedicated solely to the eye.

The fabulist Borges might describe Miami as a mermaid, a dragon, a fickle beast with intentions usually unclear. Indeed, Miami is not easily catalogued in the lexicon of cities. Optics reveal beauty in views of the beach, tan lithe bodies, expensive white high-design furniture, but also finds a dearth of books, arts, and learning. I was hoping that visiting a library dedicated to ophthalmology would help me crack the codes of beauty as it is subjectively revealed through the eyes of the observer and come closer to understanding our city and the many ways it can be seen.

I initially emailed the library in April, asking to come and see the space, maybe have a chat with the director or someone knowledgeable, and possibly thumb through a few of the more interesting manuscripts in the rare book room. Follow up after follow up was met with little response, and no invitation. Weeks went by. I later learned that my appointment was being passed around from person to person, lost in an administrative maelstrom of slashed funding and the largest cutback in the state, in which 900 people at the institute’s affiliate, the University of Miami, lost their jobs.

I passed the time waiting for their response with a series of colorful visions. “Eye library” might conjure the macabre image of formaldehyde-filled mason jars and lightly floating depersonalized eyeballs. I dreamed of manuscript hunting in a candlelit crypt, searching for that magical codex hidden in the stacks, unlocking generations-old secrets of the eye: diseases cured, symbolisms reconciled. I would throw away my life of sin to become some sort of eye-mendicant.

The red tape ripped two months after the original email and I was allowed entrance to the Mary and Edward Norton Library for a formal visit. I learned from my guide, a towering yet soft-spoken administrative assistant, that most of the library’s visitors come from the same field. Typically, only students of ophthalmology and other members of the medical community ambulate past its beautifully laid-out and sleekly designed wooden shelving. As a design element, there are no visible screws in the furniture or shelves, held together by invisible mechanisms. The library itself, somewhat ominously, sits below sea level.

The various eye professionals that utilize the library have an implicit code, taking books out on an honor system, in the absence of the administrative eye. The unspoken intention of the library’s patrons is to honorably preserve the books for future generations who will need this information. It is for our children’s ophthalmologists.

Riding high on the endless potentiality of beloved book communities, I am ushered into the rare book room. It is a sparkling treasury of retinal stimulation. Standing in the midst of the collection is overwhelming. The books sit in temperature-controlled glass cabinets, a full rainbow spectrum of discoloring aged leather.

Libraries are ostensibly vaults; they are depositories of books, of knowledge, of collective history that, upon further reflection, reveal themselves to be fleeting and semi-permanent. They have a curious habit of not surviving, the Library of Alexandria being the most famous example. That great bastion of the Ptolemies, like the countless papyruses it held and secrets of the ancients they recorded, remains forever lost. Grand scale biblioclasm is not purely an ancient concept. Just ask those who sifted through the bombed and looted ruins of the National Library in Baghdad in 2003, or consider the most famous recent example of the estimated one hundred million books incinerated by the Nazis. Today, visitors can stare through a plate of glass at a series of empty bookshelves under the cobblestones in the middle of the Bebelplatz in Berlin. Created by artist Micha Ullman, the Bibliothek Monument is a tribute to those books the Nazis did not approve of.

I imagine the devastation of watching a library burn is similar to witnessing the visceral squish of a foreign object violating a human eye.

The most famous image of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 Surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou is the physical slashing of an eye with a razor. Buñuel himself stated on numerous occasions that interpretation of his film was empty practice and that there is no symbolism found within; however, his contemporary George Bataille, author of Story of the Eye (1928), saw the scene as liberating. Buñuel was sick for a week after filming the scene, which Bataille refers to as the “cutting” gaze. He suggests that this physical slicing of the eye carries the blinding power of the sun. Buñuel himself became a victim of fascist oppression and was forced to live in exile during the regime of General Francisco Franco, whose dictatorship began with officially decreed purges of anything damaging to society found on the shelves of bookshops and libraries.

But libraries can be destroyed less ostentatiously than by war or fire. Books are fragile; paper won’t last for eternity. Indeed, the rare manuscripts of the ancients that were housed in the libraries of the Middle Ages typically sat in disuse, untouched, to disintegrate over time.

It is this thought that strikes me when my guide informs me that no one really touches the books in the rare book room. They are essentially no longer read. Not one volume came down during former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s visit to the library. In the six years he’s worked there, my guide has only seen books come down once, for a European academic studying the first recorded use of certain medical instruments. Coupled with the bureaucratic upheaval, which left the library without the staffing appropriate for rare book handling, my chances of exploring these beautifully bound tomes were made non-existent.

I felt like Owl Eyes, who marveled at Gatsby’s books and wondered if they were real. Sure, a handful of them are propped open for visitors, as if to prove their tangibility, but the rest of the stock remains closed shut and inaccessible. That beautiful copy of Descartes’s L’homme, et la Formation du Foetus (1677)? He would want me to doubt this situation. Remember the saving-these-books-for-future-generations sentiment? Johannes Kepler’s Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604)? I am pretty sure that I am a member of a “future generation.”

You cannot find the pages of these books scanned anywhere on the Internet, and if a reprint exists, it would be like a Magritte poster on drywall. They are no longer medically relevant, but these books are incredibly rare, fascinating, and useful to understand as objects. The markings inside tell the stories of their owners. To an expert, the paper can tell us where the books were printed, the bindings by whom. They represent a collective history, not just of ophthalmology, but also of the dissemination of knowledge, the musk of books. Having restricted access policies is
understandable, but refusing access altogether is counterintuitive. Many library science experts will tell you that a rare book library that is not used ceases to be a library and becomes a mausoleum.

I left the rare book room somewhat dumbfounded by the situation. I decided to weave through the stacks to try to get a sense of the language of ophthalmology. There were beautiful word juxtapositions. Bookspine poetry. Lasers in Medicine, The Enzymology of the Tears, and Eye Orbit. The possibility for throwaway science fiction plots was overwhelming. Visuospatial Thinking, The Slit Lamp, The Fundus. And the diseases! Trachoma! Thyrotoxicosis! Vernal Conjunctivitis! Tropical Ophthalmology: Eye Diseases of the Tropics.

And at that moment, not being able to handle a single one of the rare books felt particular to this tropical morass. The spines spoke to me as oracles. Tropical Ophthalmology. If we allow ourselves to open up to and accept each and every nuance particular to Miami, we can’t ignore the diseases particular to the tropics. Blindness, again, is one of Borges’s “styles of living.”

There is a troublesome etymological issue at work here, too. In medical terminology, the word tropical, whether it precedes medicine, disease, or ophthalmology, is rooted in colonialism and is now effectively synonymous with the socioeconomic term developing. Geographical areas of focus for someone studying tropical medicine include Africa, South Asia, the Pacific Islands, and other areas behind the Western world in economy and infrastructure.  If we apply this use of  “tropical,” Miami complicates matters, as it a part of a developed nation.

This path of thinking is potentially treacherous. I am not here to damn the medical community’s continued use of a misleading and problematic word, but it would be helpful if we could unload the word developing from its sociological quagmires and apply it to my initial intention of visiting the library for understanding the city itself. Miami is developing; intellectually and artistically, the city is still burgeoning.  Since the city’s incorporation in 1896, it has always been seen as a frontier, a citadel built on boom and bust. Miami is constantly in a state of emergence, both beautiful and misunderstood. This is our style of living.

As an explorer of unknown worlds, Borges would have appreciated the moment of stupor I had upon leaving the rare book room of the Mary and Edward Norton Library of Ophthalmology without having seen any of the books. It was one of acceptance despite affliction, that extended to a candid realization about the city that houses the library. My blindness went beyond my inability to read the medical jargon to the physical inaccessibility of the rare books themselves. Therein lies what is truly fascinating and unique about the ophthalmology library, a place unique to Miami. It is an eye library, in which I cannot see.