Appreciations: The Joys of a Proper Library

I recently had reason to think seriously about breaking off a relationship with an entity whose claims on my affection and dependency have never lost constancy, indeed have grown and ripened over six decades.

I’m speaking of my library.

We may be obliged to move, and that has raised the question, “What will we do about the books?” It’s both a short-term and a longer-term problem. If we move in the near future, there are simply too many to fit in any place we’re likely to end up. And if we don’t, when the actuarial table kicks in—I’m about to turn 81—I don’t want my wife and children to have to deal with the problem of getting rid of the 5000 or so books (after it’s settled who gets the Nonesuch Dickens; the signed Patrick O’Brian; the first editions of The Way We Live Now, Vanity Fair, and The Great Gatsby; and the 15-volume scholarly catalogue of The Robert Lehman Collection—a project I conceived and initiated and which took 34 years to complete).

We’re talking quantity as well as quality here. Whenever I take a delivery or welcome a first-time visitor, their initial exclamation, inevitably, is: “Wow! Look at all these books!”

Books to the left, books to the right, books everywhere, on shelves, ladder rungs, stacked against a corner wall, on every flat surface. We’re talking about 600 or so running feet, floor-to-ceiling (and in this loft the ceilings are high), built for me by Gothic Cabinet when I moved here 16 years ago.

When I first went to see the space—the building was then under renovation—my main concern was for my books. Would there be enough room for them? And my heart leapt when I saw that there would.

My books and I go way, way back. I suppose that my longest-lived bibliophilic love affair is with an Oxford University Press “India paper” Shakespeare that I bought in 1955 in Florence of all places (my boyish signature and the year are written on an endpaper). That volume has followed me into four marriages and out of three; it has sat on God knows how many shelves in in God knows how many domiciles; it’s in our bedroom now, in a row of favorite books that sit on a glass table. Another work I bought at that time was the cutest set, in three pocket volumes, of Longfellow’s translation of The Divine Comedy, but for the life of me I can’t locate it in the ruckus of books we live amid.

Books had always been integral to my existence. During World War II, my late brother Jeffrey and I lived with our mother and stepfather on a ranch in Vail, AZ, some 30 miles outside Tucson. The bedroom we shared was lined with books: a complete set of the Oz books, the Scribner Classics with the great illustrations by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, Peter Pan, Johnny Tremain, the Just So Stories, and other mainstays. First-class stuff. We were home-schooled, with lessons-by-mail from the Calvert School in Baltimore, and every few weeks, parcels would arrive from Wakefield-Young Books in N.Y.C. Reading became part of our DNA. And from a love of reading flowed a joy in books in and of themselves. Small wonder that my brother would become a distinguished antiquarian bookseller.

Somewhere during my Yale years, I realized that I was no longer just accumulating an array of books stuck on shelves after reading (or not—often the case), I was building a library. a serious constructed collection subject to certain standards of utility and readability. And so it grew into a real library, a proper personal library. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, many of them interesting, some even worthwhile, but I would designate what’s here on the shelves as among my proudest accomplishments.

It’s when I let my gaze wander along my bookshelves that I feel a kind of deep satisfaction. The books are wildly varied—of all vintages, acquired in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons—yet pretty neatly and logically organized: there are sections devoted history and biography; New York City; classical music and recordings (mostly associated with Orpheus Remarkable Recordings, the Lexington Ave. record shop I founded in 1977 and ran for 17 or 18 years); diaries (a complete Pepys, the Allen Nevins edition of George Templeton Strong, Virginia Woolf); and collections of letters (the Hart-Lyttleton correspondence, the 16th century Lisle Letters, Boswell’s letters).

In the bedroom, directly across from the glass table is an entire wall of fiction: good reading copies of great and good writing including complete sets of Jane Austen and Conan Doyle. A ton of P.G. Wodehouse, both the new Everyman edition (complete), a number of anthologies (Jeeves, golf) and a bunch of the elegant Herbert Jenkins editions, bought years ago in London. Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a five-times-read favorite, is here in the paperback editions with dazzling covers by Osbert Lancaster and Mark Boxer (Powell’s diaries and collected criticism are shelved elsewhere). Here are the volumes of John O’Hara’s short stories I acquired, one by one, Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving (O’Hara published on Turkey Day), from Gordon’s bookstore in the old St. Regis, memorably presided over by Alice Stein. And novels by writers I’ve known personally: complete or virtually complete runs of Louis Auchincloss, James Salter, Larry McMurtry, William Boyd. I have a bunch of John Le Carre first editions, starting way back with Call for the Dead, his first book, on a top shelf in the big room, next to a nice set of Ring Lardner, with a shelf of Waugh not far away. I should confess that I’m what’s called “a completist:” once I start on a series or set, I see it through to the finish, even if I know I’ll probably (surely) never read the final volumes (step forward again, Virginia Woolf).

Here are four books on Irish art by my late chum Desmond Fitzgerald, the Knight of Glin. And on a nearby shelf, collections of criticism and essays, a lot of Hazlitt, and studies on A.E. Housman and T.S. Eliot, poets who took over my soul as a young man and still matter to me. A shelf of and about Shakespeare. My own nine novels, some in elegant bindings commissioned by a former mother-in-law.
In my office, an entire wall houses what I think of as my working library: reference books (dictionaries in several languages and thesauruses, atlases and maps, quotation books, etc.), now mainly made obsolete by the speed, convenience, and reach of the Internet but still nice to have; several shelves of travel books and guides, a number of these too out-of-date in every utilitarian sense (early and later Baedeker, Companion Guides to hither and yon, old Michelins) but possessing undying literary distinction; next are shelves and shelves of books about finance, business, and Wall Street, from Marx (greatest of financial journalists) to Michael Lewis.

Moving on, here’s a section of books on society: Cleveland Amory; a first edition of Ward McAllister’s Society as I have Found It (which might be better titled “Society as I have left it”); a run of Slim Aarons’ volumes of photographs. A couple of shelves of golf (I once had a fine collection of golf rarities, but these went, along with a great collection of Modern First Editions and a better-than-fair art library, to finance one or another marital misadventure). I love cartoons, so Calvin and Hobbes, greatest of the greats, is here, and Peanuts, and Jules Pfeiffer, Ed Sorel, my father’s Yale classmate the incomparable Robert Osborn, and the forgotten Gluyas Williams. Here and there you’ll come across the odd volume inscribed by its author to me (for instance a novel by Patrick O’Brian, whom I met some twenty years ago when I flew to London for a dinner in his honor). Along with a scattering of O’Brian “firsts,” I did have a rather nice boxed set, all twenty of the Aubrey-Maturin novels in five volumes, very elegant, but this past Christmas Eve, a beloved grandson, just in the early throes of O’Brian mania, spotted the set and with my blessing bore it off delightedly. Giveth and taketh away: this might be the motto of those who build a library.

So, you see: a lot of books, and this just a sampling. Thousands of books in some odd way organically related, with me being the catalyst. My taste, my whims, my curiosity, my needs, my affections. Sourced from every single important bookstore extant in 1955 to the present day, from Periscope-Holliday on 72nd Street to Heywood Hill in London’s Mayfair to Amazon in outer space. There are almost as many memories on these shelves as there are volumes: fond thoughts of certain shops and certain booksellers—in particular, John Saumarez Smith at Heywood Hill, and another John (last name forgotten) who ran the big Doubleday’s at 57th and Fifth.

These thoughts were on my mind when I lunched with my sainted publisher at Le Veau d’Or. He suggested I get in touch with Jane Stubbs. I knew Jane a bit: She’s a leading consultant-executant on forming bespoke personal libraries, some consisting of a limited number of books on a client’s particular enthusiasm or interest, others altogether grander and more diverse.

I called Jane and persuaded her to undertake the treacherous East River crossing. She looked over my shelves and agreed that mine is really a first-class personal library—probably impossible to replicate today. We followed up with lunch, and started by discussing what a proper library isn’t.

In a proper library, for instance, you’ll not find serried ranks of the productions of Franklin Mint or the Folio Society. Not that we have anything against grandly-produced books, mind you, but if elaborate books are to your taste, why not go after the real thing? Among the bookshelves that have prompted me to stop and wheeze in admiration are those that hold Susan Gutfreund’s French bindings: these are volumes notable not so much for what’s in them as for what’s on them.

Nor is an agglomeration of garishly dust-jacketed best-sellers—row upon row of David Baldacci, James Patterson, Fifty Shades—a library. A library consists of books that come to stay; these mostly don’t. Buy–read–discard. Which is not to disparage popular writing. I love it myself. And that’s where the Kindle has been a blessing: I download thrillers and such, read them, enjoy them, and then—poof!—back into the ether they go.

Finally, books are something more than furniture. A library isn’t an accumulation of books, often decorator-driven or stylist-staged, acquired principally to dress up one’s social, intellectual or pecuniary status—or aspirations to what is called “piss-elegance.” Think how often you’ve seen photographs in this magazine and others in which books are arranged artfully in an obvious effort to “class up” the setting. After all, what do they say? “Books do furnish a room.”

That they do, but they also furnish mind and soul, enliven the spirit, offer companionship. I often describe my library as an exercise in applied serendipity. Grazing the shelves, I’ll come across something I’ve completely forgotten I had and—bingo!—I’m hooked. Too many to count are books I’ve only looked at once, may never finish, indeed may never read because the impulse that prompted their acquisition passed before I could get to them. But who knows? Often I’m curious about something and like to look it up without resorting to Wikipedia, because I’ve had the book all along and because I find the physical qualities of a well-printed book alluring. To me a wall full of well-chosen, well-arranged books is as satisfying as a nice picture.

A proper personal library is about rereading as much anything else. About having at hand the authors and subjects you find yourself suddenly wanting to revisit. In the last few years, I’ve reread a great deal of Wodehouse, O’Hara’s stories, the great Southern California noirs of Ross Macdonald, Maugham, and many others. When we come home from seeing Shakespeare at BAM or St. Ann’s Warehouse, down will come Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All, or Hazlitt, or Dr. Johnson, or Harold Bloom, or James Shapiro; I want to know what they think/thought about Lear, say, to compare and ponder their ideas, and I want to be able to do it in the moment.
Important keywords in building a true personal library might therefore be “immediately” and “sometime.” A library will satisfy both the intentional and the contingent, strike some kind of balance between happy accidents and careful planning. It will incorporate the blessings of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Yet no matter how nobly intentioned, none of this takes away the certainty that one day, possibly not so far off, my books and I must part company, and longtime shelf mates will take leave of one another. I don’t know if books themselves have feelings but if they do, that will be a sad moment, given how long and loyally they’ve kept company and what good service they’ve given.
As for me, I have no doubt that when the time comes my emotions will replicate those of one of the greatest of all writers, Edward Gibbon. He’s close to my heart; The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is represented chez moi by two splendid editions: the 1994 Allen Lane one, and the Limited Editions Club one of 1946, illustrated with engravings by Piranesi, alongside Gibbon’s Memoirs of My Life and his autobiography.

When he finished his great history in 1787, Gibbon put down his pen and went for a walk beside Lake Geneva, and as he did, “a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken my everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion.”
So it must be for anyone who has invested as much of himself in his bookshelves as this writer. In the pleasure of marrying all these books ultimately must lie the pain of divorce. But the trip has been worth it.