… is the title of one of the volumes in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. In the book, the phrase is attached to a character called Bagshawe, a man in love with literature and publishing. Bagshawe is mostly a figure of fun, and I think we are meant to smile in a superior way at the sentiment. But Mr Bagshawe was right. Books do furnish a room; they can furnish a house, dammit!
We are great readers, here in Orchard House, and have been as far back as we can remember; and so it is that we love libraries, including our own. Here is a glimpse of what the book room was like in my last house:
In all the twelve years we were there, this is the best view I have — a blurry one, taken, as you can see, as we packed to move out. So you will have to take my word for it that there were three other sets of shelves like the one you see here, along two walls of the room. Below is a picture of our new book room in the making. The excellent deal is that the Domestic Comrade makes the bookcases and I fill them: another room is full of the boxes which will overflow the shelves which you can see stacked on the trolley front right — shelves which we at last started painting that day: they got their undercoat.
Meanwhile, in a place far from here, my friend is packing up her books to move into another wing of our Orchard House. I am rather ashamed to admit that, even with my head-start of a year, it is very likely that she will have them all unpacked well before I have mine in order.
What to call a room full of books? (Apart from “agreeably cluttered”.) “The Library” sounds stilted, pretentious even. I think we say “study” more these days — or is that just in the British part of Orchard House? The New Jersey house where my mother grew up (and the first house I remember) was not a grand place, but the front upstairs room was called The Library. I recall two items in it: a small grand piano, which took most of the space and which no one played, and my grandfather’s set of the Harvard Classics, almost hidden behind glazed bookcase-doors, along with lots of other books. I have a sense that I wasn’t allowed in the library (I was five or six when the house was sold) — but I have a distant memory of sneaking in there, and lying under the piano, reading a book of my own.
Amos Bronson Alcott had a study in Orchard House where he kept his library….
and his daughter Louisa had an alcove cupboard in her bedroom where she kept hers…
These are modest libraries, of course, befitting the modest, at times less than modest, resources of the Alcott family. And then there is perhaps the most impressive personal library I know: Sir Walter Scott’s at his palatial pile at Abbotsford, which is as he left it, housing some seven thousand volumes.
For most of us bibliophiles, Scott is not a model. Space and cost prohibit it. Orchard House is a better guide, if guide you need. And books do furnish a room. You will need a table and some chairs as well, plus a light, but then you’re done. The colour of the spines of your books are the best wallpaper, and there’s nothing to beat their smell.
Here is a picture of I know not which library — it could be the London Library (http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk) — but wherever it is, it is the real thing, a place clearly devoted to books.
Another such place is the magical Morrab Library in Penzance (http://morrablibrary.org.uk), an independent library, as is the London Library — but the Morrab is even older, founded in 1818, a generation before Thomas Carlisle thought of setting one up in St James’s Square.
In both places, the London and the Morrab, membership is a wonderful privilege. Just to wander the shelves and the stacks is one of the best uses of time I know. Getting lost in the vast, rambling, haphazard London Library, which is delightfully easy to do, is an adventure, every time.
There is some evidence that the Alcotts’ home town, Concord (Massachusetts), had a public library from before 1672, and there was certainly a subscription library there from 1795; then from 1821 there was a proprietary library (something like Mudie’s was in Victorian England or Boots more recently). I don’t know whether the young Miss Alcott patronised it, but surely she was a member of the Town Library (which was housed in the new Town House, above), founded in 1851. And she must surely have joined the gingerbread-house Free Public Library (below) founded in 1873.
The first public library I joined was this one (above), in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. The children’s library was in the main library space, behind a low white picket fence which I adored; it was still there when I revisited it in the early 1980s, thirty years later, but I don’t suppose it is still there. The building is, however, and that early imprinting means that it remains my idea of what a public library should look like.
My current public library, here near the Kent (England) branch of Orchard House, used to be the railway station. Its selection of books is not wonderful, it is under attack as all public libraries are nowadays, but it does its best with the little it has. It is charming, isn’t it?
What do your bookshelves look like? What do you call the room where most of them are? Which are your favourite libraries?