27 Aug Building My Library

For the past three weeks I’ve been building a library. I don’t mean gathering books, I mean building book cases. It’s a bigger job than I anticipated. I’m filling a large room with floor-to-ceiling book cases. Nine, to be exact. For all my adult life, I’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 aims—seeking a place to put books.

But, of course, a library is more than the books themselves. It’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 libraries—those dark wood-paneled sanctums of the rich—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 I’m in a special place. Which is why I’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 didn’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 couldn’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 bones—then called “ante-diluvium remains”–was nothing less than the discovery biblical “monsters” destroyed by the Flood and no more than 3-4,000 years old. I have geography books that call all land west of Ohio “Indian Territory.” I have an early edition of Samuel Johnson’s two-volume dictionary. And an old Webster’s (the size of an ottoman) before they started putting in illustrations. I love book illustrations—I scan them and have hundreds in my archive. The earliest illustrations in books (pre 1830s) were hand-tinted. Here’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 books—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 it’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 encyclopedias—called the Penny Cyclopedia—was the edition used by Herman Melville to write the “whaling chapters” of Moby Dick.. I’m not going to find a copy of that anywhere but the Library of Congress. And I’m not going to drive to Washington, D.C., just so I can browse through the Penny Cyclopedia’s 35 volumes. Browsing is what I do in my library. When I find myself browsing, I feel guilty because it’s to no useful end. It’s simply an indulgence. But that’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 I’m building have many old glass doors I’ve salvaged from architectural warehouses and special cabinets for special books, like my collection of miniatures. I’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. I’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.