The mayor of the movie capital of the world likes his entertainment between covers.
Books. Forty thousand of them.
In virtually every room and hallway of his Brentwood mansion, from the shelves in the cellar to the topmost cases in the two-story library, are Richard Riordan's books.
These are not some decorator's conceit, not restaurant-ornament volumes, not tidy by-the-yard books with matching bindings. Riordan's books are stacked lavishly in heaps. Piles of them nestle in corners the way dust bunnies do in other people's houses. They are within arm's reach of almost every chair and sofa.
He is sitting in an easy chair in his library, with a dog in his lap and another on his shoulder and, on the table, a book about the \o7 fin de siecle \f7 French aristocrats who inspired Proust's characters, and a monograph on G. K. Chesterton.
He seems as proud of his collection as he is of his dogs, and he takes pleasure in his visitors' delight.
If you have ever walked through any great museum, you know the shock of recognizing art you have seen in reproduction all your life. You turn a corner and--look! There's the Raft of the Medusa. You turn another and--my God, that's the Mona Lisa, or the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Exploring Riordan's collection feels a bit like that. At every turn--on shelves built on the herringbone-brick floors of the cellar, at the top of the circular staircase, in the chess room and the breakfast room--there's something marvelous: Miguel de Unamuno . . . Edith Wharton . . . Paul Verlaine . . . Harper's magazines back to Lincoln's first term.
Riordan bought 90% of this collection in one fell swoop, when Immaculate Heart College closed more than 10 years ago (the card catalogue is in a niche in the basement). That still means he began with something like 4,000 books of his own, and he admits abashedly that even with this vast collection at home, he still finds bookstores irresistible, especially used bookstores, and can't bring himself to leave them empty-handed.
He quotes Evelyn Waugh--his all-time favorite--and Mark Twain; gets excited when someone recommends a book of his that he hasn't yet read; and regrets that mayoring leaves little time for reading.
All right, if we were to look on your bedside table right now, what would we find? we asked.
"I'll bet I'd be embarrassed," he said, looking embarrassed. But go ahead.
We did. "The White Nile," by Alan Moorhead; "Privatization and Educational Choice," "Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches of History," "The Dream and the Nightmare," about the 1960s and America's poor; and something by G. K. Chesterton.
Riordan has donated millions to literacy, computer and reading programs over the years, and as the remade downtown Central Library reopens, the ruminations of a bibliophile mayor are worth knowing.
Since this interview, the City Council twice emphatically rejected Riordan's proposal to sell part of the landmark Central Library to a subsidiary of the tobacco giant Philip Morris in a lease-back arrangement. The library system took a major blow under Riordan's budget adjustment, which would cut 25% from its purchasing budget for materials such as new books. Library hours have already been scaled back by earlier budgets.
New library commissioners with entertainment industry ties are expected to help replenish the deep cuts in the purchasing budget, Riordan aides said. And the mayor told The Times that he believes service can be maintained by volunteers and philanthropists, so "we don't have to reduce services and, in fact, can increase them."
\o7 How old were you when you began to read?\f7
Six months. (He laughs). No, it's sort of interesting, somewhere around 6, I was a voracious reader and I remember just enjoying books and Greek mythology for a year or two and all of a sudden it stopped and I never really read (for pleasure) again until, what? College and law school.
\o7 People buy books in different fashions. Do you buy them on friends' recommendations\f7 . . . \o7 or do you even buy them, you have so many?\f7
I'm a bookaholic. I can't walk out (of a store) without buying five or 10 books. And I always think I'm gonna read them all and. . . . (He gestures at the towering shelves and laughs.)
\o7 How do you progress through this? Is there any method? Do you sort of wander and go, "There's one I haven't seen before, gee, I'd like to read that"?\f7
That's sort of what I do . . . in sort of a wandering way I've lucked out and read books that years later people think are significant--not by any logic or study of it but just having somehow or another run across the book.
\o7 Is there anything you want to read that you don't have time to?\f7
I've wanted to read all of Proust, "Remembrance of Things Past." What I've read I loved but I've never really gotten very far into it.
\o7 How do you tell people what's good about books? Movies are so distracting, TV is so distracting--how do you sell a book in this day and age?\f7