That’s a pretty straightforward definition, isn’t it? So why are so many rooms that are devoid of books called libraries? I was leafing through a design magazine the other day and stopped to admire the floor-to-ceiling wall of books in an apartment in a renovated printing plant. I was thinking what a fitting tribute this was to the building’s heritage—until, upon closer inspection, I realized I was looking at book-patterned wallpaper. To a bibliophile like me, this bordered on sacrilege.
Shelter magazines are full of such book abuse: shelving books spine-inward, replacing jackets with butcher paper…or worse. I remember reading a story about the venerable Strand used bookstore in Manhattan, in which a clerk took notice of a man and woman selecting entire shopping carts of books. At check-out, the clerk commented on the couple’s eclectic tastes. “He’s my decorator, not my husband,” the woman replied. They were buying books in bulk, not to read, but to match a purple-and-yellow color scheme.
In Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman’s delightful paean to books, she recounts the tale of a couple who rented their house to an interior designer for several months: “When they returned, they discovered their entire library had been reorganized by color and size,” she wrote. “Shortly thereafter, the decorator met with a fatal automobile accident. I confess that when this story was told, everyone around the dinner table concurred that justice had been served.” We book lovers can be a harsh lot.
Indeed, once I learned that a boyfriend’s collection of leather-bound books had never actually been read, but purchased by the yard to achieve a literary look, I knew the relationship was doomed. What we choose to read—or not read—and what we choose to keep in a place of prominence speaks, ahem, volumes about us. Spend some time browsing through a friend’s collection and you’ll learn more about their tastes, interests, and eccentricities than you would through a Google search. A Kindle or a Nook may be a convenient way to consume words, but lacks the tactile pleasure of a creamy paper stock, the visual appeal of a well-designed dust jacket, or the impressive mosaic of a home library brimming with dog-eared volumes.
Revisiting books over the years is like meeting up with an old friend, a way of reconnecting to the past. Proust had his madeleines; I have my books. Whenever I pass by the boxed set of Little House on the Prairie books, I can’t help but conjure up sweet memories of my daughters snuggling up to me as I read to them so long ago. How could I ever part with my father’s tattered first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, knowing we both had loved it almost to shreds as children? Can a book bought solely as a design element ever summon up such strong emotions?
I grew up in a family that revered books: History and art tomes were shelved in the living room, two more walls of mysteries in my dad’s den, literature in the master bedroom, and miscellaneous stacks throughout the house. I was thrilled when I finally had my own library built about 15 years ago and was able to have all my books coexisting in one room, sorted by category and alphabetized by author. I was explaining my system to one of my daughters, who was 10 at the time, and naturally started with Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, written under the pseudonym Anonymous. “I’ve heard of Anonymous,” she said. “Didn’t he write a lot of poetry?” Obviously, a girl after my own heart, and one already on her way to an impressive library of her own—a room that has earned its title.