The Home Library: Being Wrapped in Books

In the fascinating essay, “Why Read the Classics?” Italian writer and literary critic Italo Calvino described the ideal library: “All that can be done is for each of us to invent our own ideal library of our classics; and I would say that one half of it would consist of books we have read and that have meant something for us and the other half of books which we intend to read and which we suppose might mean something to us. We should also leave a section of empty spaces for surprises and chance discoveries.” There are many bibliophiles that would argue that the ideal library should actually be divided into three sections: books we have read, books we want to read, and books we want to re-read again and again.

No matter how books are organized in a home library, bibliophiles enjoy being surrounded by books. Journalist and bibliophile Reid Byers, author of The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom, has coined a term for this: book-wrapt. Book-wrapt, a clever pun on the words wrapped and rapped, as in rapt/rapture — means being simultaneously wrapped (surrounded) by books and being held rapt in a magical space, experiencing the rapture of exploring exciting new worlds or seeing the world through the eyes of another. Calvino would concur with Byers’ description of the private library: “The private library is the domestic bookroom: that quiet, book-wrapt space that guarantees its owner that there is at least one place in the world where it is possible to be happy… Entering our library should feel like easing into a hot tub, strolling into a magic store, emerging into the orchestra pit, or entering a chamber of curiosities, the club, the circus, our cabin on an outbound yacht, the house of an old friend. It is a setting forth, and it is a coming back to center.”

Naturally, the realization of a home library invites the question: how many books does it take to experience being book-wrapt? Although many bibliophiles believe that a true home library begins with at least 1,000 books, Byers believes that at least 500 books ensures that a room will begin to feel like a library. The key words Byers’ statement are “will begin to feel like.” Let’s do the math: an average bookcase (eg, Ikea’s bestselling bookcase model, Billy) holds up to 280 paperback books (or 210 hardcover books), so two full bookcases do make a very modest home library — but the real magic happens when you fill five, ten, or fifteen bookcases. I recall my journey as a book collector, beginning with a few hundred books in one bookcase, that slowly increased to 1,000 books, then 2,000, to 5,000, and a few decades later reached its current size of 10,000+ volumes, filling dozens of floor-to-ceiling bookcases in a space dedicated to the home library. Then you reach the point where you begin double stacking: there is a row of books in front of a back row of books on each shelf. At this size, the magic that you experience is timelessness: you enter a world of ideas, where one thought leads to another, one passage leads to another, and one book leads to another… and another, and so forth. As impressive as this library might be, it pales in comparison to the library of the late Professor Richard Maksey, of John Hopkins University, who had a home library of more than 70,000 books or the library of Gary Hoover, founder of Bookstop and a passionate advocate for reading lifelong learning, who bought a 6,600 square foot building to house his collection of more than 60,000 reference books. From an architectural standpoint, perhaps the most stunning home library is that of Jay Scott Walker, founder of Priceline. His private library (3,600 square feet), called “The Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination,” is more like a library/museum containing more than 25,000 books and fascinating historical artifacts. (You can read about these fascinating book collectors in the links below.)

In her essay “How Many Books Does It Take to Make a Place Feel Like a Home [Library]” for The New York Times Julie Lasky hones in on the home library’s greatest attribute: the sense of wonder it evokes: “[Byers’ The Private Library] goes to the heart of why physical books continue to beguile us. Individually, they are frequently useful or delightful, but it is when books are displayed en masse that they really work wonders. Covering the walls of a room, piled up to the ceiling and exuding the breath of generations, they nourish the senses, slay boredom and relieve distress.” Indeed, the home library is a homage to the great truths and topics pondered and explored by great writers and thinkers; it is a shrine to the accumulated knowledge of mankind as well as a portal to what scholars call the “unknown unknown”; and finally it is a temple to bibliophilism or biblioholism — depending on your perspective. True bibliophiles understand that a great home library not only evokes a profound sense of wonder, it also evokes a deep sense of humility: that you are standing among giants of history and the vast record of mankind filled with tales of achievement and failure; courage and fear; hope and despair; compassion and cruelty; endurance and capitulation. I am reminded of one of the greatest definitions of a library expressed by Vartan Gregorian, former president of the New York Public Library (NYPL), who stood in the middle of the glorious, seemingly infinite stacks of the NYPL and remarked, “This [gesturing at all the stacks] is the DNA of our civilization.” Amen.

The library as a depository of knowledge, as a research tool, is explored by essayist Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan. Taleb cites another great writer and scholar, Umberto Eco, who very much like Calvino, was passionate about books and learning: “The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing more than 30,000 books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have. How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market alow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary. We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.”

Naturally, the antilibrary gives rise to its dutiful steward, the antischolar. According to Taleb, the antischolar is “someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.” Perhaps the greatest antischolar was Socrates who said, “”The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This sentiment of intellectual humility is also expressed by a famous quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

With all due respect to Taleb, the term “antilibrary” is terrible. Surely an individual with his level of erudition knows that anti- is the Greek prefix meaning “against.” Think of all these words: antihero, antigravity, anticlimax, antimatter, antiaircraft — all of which mean the opposite of something. So the anti-library is the opposite of a library (no books) or opposition to or suppression of a library (think censorship or book burning). There has to be a better term — and I believe there is. I submit for your consideration the term the “desired library” or the “aspirational library” — filled with the books that you desire or that you aspire to read one day. Sounds much more hopeful, doesn’t it?

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If you enjoyed this essay, you might enjoy my book, Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf, based on my popular blog, Atkins Bookshelf. The blog explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. At the heart of Atkins Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature; its goal is to educate, entertain, and inspire.
The book can be found here.
The blog can be found here.

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President of Alexander Atkins Design, a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits & schools; author of Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf.

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Alexander Atkins

Alexander Atkins

President of Alexander Atkins Design, a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits & schools; author of Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf.

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