27 Aug Building My Library
For the past three weeks Iâ€™ve been building a library. I donâ€™t mean gathering books, I mean building book cases. Itâ€™s a bigger job than I anticipated. Iâ€™m filling a large room with floor-to-ceiling book cases. Nine, to be exact. For all my adult life, Iâ€™ve longed to have a library of my own. As I am now constructing it, and having all kinds of problems with leveling and anchoring and trimming and wiring, it occurs to me that this is an extraordinary effort for the simplest of aimsâ€”seeking a place to put books.
But, of course, a library is more than the books themselves. Itâ€™s an idea, a symbol, a hallowed place. A personal library is a luxury, within reach of us common folk only for the last hundred years. We amateur librarians strive to replicate the luxurious surroundings of the original private librariesâ€”those dark wood-paneled sanctums of the richâ€”because these surroundings seem to do justice to our passion for reading and collecting. When I walk into a library, I want to feel that Iâ€™m in a special place. Which is why Iâ€™m a fan of old libraries and dismayed by the architecture of new ones. If you want to see an awesome old library in Baltimore, visit the Peabody Library. OMG.
The books in my library are a rag-tag collection. I like old paperbacks as much as old leather-bounds. By the way, you should know that older books were printed with paper covers, which the owners would have bound in leather or cloth. Books didnâ€™t come bound until the mid-nineteenth century. I have a John Dryden play in pre-bound condition. Not that I like Dryden, but I couldnâ€™t pass up a bargain. Which is why I try to stay away from book auctions. The last auction I attended, I came away with two boxes of nineteenth century French texts that I have no use for.
Mostly I collect dictionaries and encyclopedias and other old reference. No books better reflect the changing times. I have nineteenth century science books whose authors assert that the discovery of dinosaur bonesâ€”then called â€œante-diluvium remainsâ€–was nothing less than the discovery biblical â€œmonstersâ€ destroyed by the Flood and no more than 3-4,000 years old. I have geography books that call all land west of Ohio â€œIndian Territory.â€ I have an early edition of Samuel Johnsonâ€™s two-volume dictionary. And an old Websterâ€™s (the size of an ottoman) before they started putting in illustrations. I love book illustrationsâ€”I scan them and have hundreds in my archive. The earliest illustrations in books (pre 1830s) were hand-tinted. Hereâ€™s a hand-tinted illustration from an 1813 text for the amateur zoologist.
Years ago, when I thought I wanted an unencumbered life, I got rid of my booksâ€”everything except my dictionary–and resolved to visit the local library for all my reading needs. But, within a year, I had started buying books. A book is a beautiful thing. And I want lots of them, I decided. More than that, they make me feel well-contained, taken care of, self-sufficient. They are like first-aid kits or filled canteens. As a result, to stand in my own library, engulfed by the lovely smell of decaying paper, I feel bunkered against the depredations of the world.
Even though itâ€™s becoming increasingly easy to access information online, including old books that have been scanned, no source of information can make the private library obsolete because no source is complete. For example, one of my earliest encyclopediasâ€”called the Penny Cyclopediaâ€”was the edition used by Herman Melville to write the â€œwhaling chaptersâ€ of Moby Dick.. Iâ€™m not going to find a copy of that anywhere but the Library of Congress. And Iâ€™m not going to drive to Washington, D.C., just so I can browse through the Penny Cyclopediaâ€™s 35 volumes. Browsing is what I do in my library. When I find myself browsing, I feel guilty because itâ€™s to no useful end. Itâ€™s simply an indulgence. But thatâ€™s precisely the point of a library and why it must look and feel so special: it has always been a quiet place that belies the passage of time so that you will take the time to indulge yourself.
The book cases Iâ€™m building have many old glass doors Iâ€™ve salvaged from architectural warehouses and special cabinets for special books, like my collection of miniatures. Iâ€™ve also found two nineteenth century plaster sculptures that seem made for a library. It took some time to figure how to incorporate these into the scheme but I think they will look splendid. The book case trim is mahogany, a load of which I got at an auction. There will also be a ladder to reach the higher shelves. Just yesterday the brass rail arrived for the ladder, which I have yet to build. Iâ€™d like to think that within another three weeks, this will be done. In the meantime, my books are stacked under sheets throughout the third floor and I miss their solemn, odorous company.