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International pathways paved with books

The Road to Home: My Life and Times, Vartan Gregorian, Simon & Schuster: 358 pp., $29.95

August 17, 2003|Susan Kent | Susan Kent is the city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library.

"Once upon a time, there was ... " began the stories that Vartan Gregorian's beloved grandmother Voski Mirzaian told him as he was growing up in Tabriz, Iran. An illiterate peasant, proud that her name meant "scribe" in Persian, she raised Vartan and his sister, telling them fabulous stories that were life lessons in ethics, morality, virtue and duty.

In "The Road to Home," Gregorian describes his journey from Tabriz to Lebanon to America, where he emerged as a preeminent intellectual, rescuing the New York Public Library from ruin and currently serving as president of the Carnegie Corp. One comes away from this warm and witty memoir with a sense of the lively engagement and humanistic curiosity that has characterized Gregorian's entire career.

Gregorian, born during the chaos of World War II, has traveled a road paved with books. When his life with his father and stepmother became increasingly difficult, he escaped to the library and, when that wasn't possible, to reading in his room in defiance of bedtime rules:

"I read every evening, sometimes late into the night, with the help of kerosene lamps, often secretly, past my bedtime. The solitude and the silence were for me heavenly gifts that enhanced the joy of reading. The more I read, the more I had to read.... Reading became a compulsion for me. Books freed me from my prison, transported me far away to a wonderful realm of possibilities."

The library became his "place of solace, a home elsewhere," and his taste in reading ranged from Alexandre Dumas to Goethe to Mark Twain. He read Russian novels, Sherlock Holmes and Franz Werfel's "Forty Days of Musa Dagh," the story of the Armenian genocide and Armenian resistance, and he was "intoxicated with reading."

As a young teenager, he left Tabriz for Beirut and an education at the College Armenien. To be accepted as a permanent student he had to learn French, Arabic and English; two strangers offered to tutor him in French at no charge. Gregorian's academic career there left little time for relaxation and fun as he studied for long hours, waited on tables and hoped for invitations to classmates' homes so he could have a meal. His idea of America came straight from the cowboy films he saw in Beirut. In New York, en route to California and Stanford University, he was "blown away" by the noise, the colors and the mass of buildings and people.

Gregorian's sense of discovery and fascination with America is conveyed with enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. He is by turns humorous ("The fundamental culinary challenge of my Americanization was my ability to drink American black coffee") and serious ("I had read that the United States had entered into World War I to 'make the world safe for democracy,' and World War II to fight against a racist, totalitarian Nazi Germany and a racist, imperialist Japan. I never thought that while fighting for democracy and against racist regimes, the United States would tolerate racism at home"). Always the student, he presents himself as eager to learn and understand the new country in which he found himself.

Gregorian's intellectual engagement plays out consistently as he relates the story of his life in academia, first as a faculty member in history departments at San Francisco State, UCLA and the University of Texas at Austin and then as provost at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the 1960s, while he was at San Francisco State, antiwar demonstrations and the emergence of the Black Panther Party became defining moments for him. The importance of free speech, civil rights and the ability to question U.S. foreign policy was counterbalanced by the resulting factionalization of the faculty and the subsequent decline in authority of many college presidents.

Gregorian's ideas for improving education were sometimes accepted, sometimes not. Always an innovator, he loved the politics of the academy but "detested manipulation" and enjoyed working with what he calls "mavericks."

In 1981, Gregorian accepted a major challenge. He left a distinguished academic career to become president of the New York Public Library and, he explains, "fix" a broken institution: "I thought that if I succeeded in rescuing and rejuvenating the Library and restoring its central role in the cultural and educational life of New York, it would be considered a 'miracle.' If I failed, it would be a worthy yet public 'martyrdom.' "

Gregorian developed a straightforward and deceptively simple seven-point plan that was adopted by the board of trustees, and he pursued that plan doggedly. He strengthened the library's administration and recruited strong, experienced people, gained an intimate knowledge of the institution and its constituencies, enhanced the board of trustees, launched a major capital campaign and focused on publicizing the importance and central position of the library in New York and beyond.

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