Books & the Rooms that Hold Them
Posted on August 5, 2016
This was Thomas Jefferson’s declaration to John Adams in June of 1815 as the last cart, ten in all, left Monticello for Washington D.C. bearing his gift to Congress and our country. Following the British burning of the United States Capitol in the War of 1812, Jefferson ceded his personal library to Congress to replace their reference library that had been destroyed in the fire. His collection, numbering of 6,500 volumes in total, was rooted in the classics and was organized in a system created by Francis Bacon into categories of “Memory, Reason and Imagination” which Jefferson would translate to his own format of “History, Philosophy and Fine Arts” and subdivide in to an additional 44 chapters.
This sections varied greatly in their contents – “Memory” containing a copy of the works of Julius Caesar, to a chronological history of the Americas, early histories of the states, a biography of Washington, the History of the Popes to books on science and anatomy; “Reason” is filled with titles from Voltaire to essays feminist movements, from ethics and international law to religious subjects of the Bible to the Koran, and on political philosophy from Sir Thomas More to Machiavelli;
and “Imagination” including works on architecture from the Builder’s Dictionary to the writings of Palladio and Alberti, books on music and theater, to classics including Aristotle’s Poetica, Pliny’s Letters and Petronius’s Satryicon. Hoping to provide in this collection “no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
A lot can be said about a person by taking a look at their collection of books. It give you an insight to what one holds valuable and important, perhaps an indication to the breath of their knowledge, their appreciation of writing, science or the arts, as well as their sense of humor. It is like peeking behind a facade and seeing what really makes the mind work. While it may soon be a thing of the past, I am still drawn to the feel of a good leather binding and the touch of firm paper as I leaf through pages, or even the more simple texture of the tattered and folded corners of a well-worn paperback. For me, the creation of a collection of books will always be a priority.
The place that holds ones books, tells another story as well. Jefferson’s own library at Monticello was based in the “Book Room”, but it actually filled a suite of private rooms that included the Library, the Greenhouse, the Cabinet, and his bedroom – collectively his “Sanctum Sanctorum”.
On a grander scale, the place that would eventually be built to hold the ever growing collections of the Library of Congress, America’s National Library, would be the first building in Washington to truly reflect the tenants of the “Beaux-Arts” style. This great hall is reflective of its period and stature, its materials and artistry echo the symbolism the purpose of the building – the integration of American contributions within the greater continuum of world knowledge and culture.
The main Reading Room, octagonal in shape reflected the library’s organizational system under eight hierarchical headings. Identified by allegorical figures sitting atop the entablature of the great Corinthian columns and pilasters along the upper balcony, each division is defined with the paintings, ornamentations, the statues and quotations in their cartouches which symbolically link the visual arts with the written word, giving further meaning to the building and its contents. The building itself becomes an active participant in the disbursement of knowledge.
Here today, the Library of Congress exhibits a collection recapturing Jefferson’s original library – some those the actual books of Jefferson, others originals copies replacing volumes that we lost in a fire, and some new that are still hoping to be replaced with a more accurate facsimile of the original.
While this is our Nation’s Library, my own experience with libraries that shape both their settings and the minds of those who experienced them was defined by two in particular. The downtown library in Houston may now be located in the hulking, stone clad Jones Building, but to me the spirit of what a library is was really found in the original central library – the Julia Ideson Building. Built in a cream colored brick, it is ornamented with detailing in cast stone and crowned by the by a lattice of finials that glow against the lighting behind, this Spanish Revival courtyard building was designed by Ralph Adams Cram and opening in 1926. Its interior is adorned with the city’s largest installation of WPA era public murals.
Later, this sense of a library defining its place would be reinforced by Battle Hall, the original library at the University of Texas at Austin, now the Architecture Library. While rooted in classicism and inspired by the great Boston Public Library, this Spanish Renaissance building, designed by Cass Gilbert, captures the essence of local influences that would shape the design of this young university campus. Taking ques from local surroundings and heritage, the building reflected both regional and academic historicism in its expression – its materials are rooted in the Texas experience using local shell stone limestone, deep overhanging eaves cover decorative polychrome soffits sitting under the red tile roofs, its iron balconies, scrolled brackets and lanterns evoke the long Spanish traditions, and one enters the building through deep shaded loggias.
Its great Reading Room is an inspiring space – the limestone carried through to the interior walls and wrapped with a tall wainscot of book shelves integrated between the great arches filled by windows and shutters of long leaf pine, all capped high above by the polychrome painted timber trusses.
These buildings have taken lessons and inspiration form a long history of great libraries around the world. While many of these have both shaped their spaces through their architecture and their collections, we are also drawn to this same experience of place that are created in great literature and the figures that wrote them.
Imagine the Spanish Golden Age, where the Reconquista coincides with one of the greatest periods of exploration of the world and where art and literature are flourishing along with this capturing of vast amounts of knowledge. This is a time when King Philip II builds El Escorial, the great monastery housing his royal library, using the greatest architects, artists and craftsmen to create this great hall containing all of the wisdom of the day rooted, while crafted in styles that would become defined as uniquely Spanish.
At this same time, on of the great pieces of Spanish literature comes to life, with Cervantes creating Don Quixote in what many consider the first modern novel. It is easy to visually connect the place and time to the character who is fancifully chasing dreams and tilt at windmills.
The raucous misadventures of Sebastian Dangerfield crated by J. P. Donleavy introduced me to Dublin and Trinity College in The Ginger Man. The Long Room of its great library, lined with marble bust of great philosophers and writers along the double height stacks and central arched vault is a defining image of the University of Dublin.
Perhaps the best expression of library can be found in the personal collections that fill an individual’s own library. It can be a reflection of the story of their work and leisure life, as well as the personality of the collector.
And acknowledged rabid reader, Teddy Roosevelt read the same way he lived his life – with vigor and on a wide multitude of subjects. He referred to his collection of books with great ardor –
“Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”
His library at Sagamore Hill reflects this, filled with over 8,000 books on shelves mixed in with hunting trophies, floors covered rugs – oriental and exotic furs, as well as other mementos from a full life. It is a place where you can picture yourself lighting a fire and curling up in a deep, well-worn leather chair with a good book.
Winston Churchill’s Library and study at Chartwell, his home in Kent, is a place that shaped the world. Filled with thousands of leather bound books, Churchill beyond his role as military and political leader, was a great historian, writer and artist in his own right. Often welcoming visitors to “his factory”, this is the place where both fates were shaped and he could also escape in retreat to his own passions of creativity.
Naulakha, Rudyard Kipling’s home in Vermont, takes its name from the Hindi work meaning a “jewel beyond price”. This shingle style home is some ways resembles a ship and Kipling’s study fills the prow. It is in this library that he would write the Jungle Books and Captain’s Courageous and the beginning of Kim. Kipling understood the power of writing and his collection of books reflected this:
“I am, by calling, a dealer of words; and words, of course, are the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
Closer to home, the library of the Texas writer Larry McMurtry goes beyond mere collection of words. He is a true bibliophile who has spent a life time collecting books when he isn’t writing classics like Horseman, Pass by, The Last Picture Show, and Lonesome Dove. His whole home is essentially a library, where the dining room is his writing space and an outbuilding that was a former servants quarters is his “Book House” – an annex to the library.
His 450,000 books fill more than just his home in Archer City, he has had 4 bookstores as well, each called Booked Up, to house his collection until their recent auction. On book collecting, he says
“One of the great things about the life of an antiquarian bookseller is that it is progressive, you keep getting better and better and better the longer you do it.”
In Key West, Ernest Hemingway’s home contains his library, a simple open workspace that is filled with his own collection of books wrapping the room in shelves topped with fanciful decanters, wall sparsely decorated with hunting trophies and pictures, with a small writing table centered in the room and light spilling in from all sides.
Perhaps Hemingway best captures why books captivate and capture us – and why we continue to build our own collections of books
“All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, the good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people and weather. If you can give that to reader, then you’re a writer”