“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”
– T.S. Eliot
So we built a library. Now, I’m not talking about raising funds for a public institution with modern architecture, stacks of bookshelves and circular centers with computers atop the desks (oh, card catalogues, where have ye gone?).
I mean a library in my home.
What was once a basement bedroom into which we hauled my oversized ornate desk, innumerable hand-assembled bookshelves and a cringe-worthy quantity of books is now THE LIBRARY. Acacia wood floors (“the most sanctified wood in history” per our supplier – used, potentially, “to construct the Ark of the Covenant”), custom built-in walnut bookshelves, French doors and a crown-molding finish comprise what has become a wonderland for me.
Why would we do this? Why in the age of Kindles and iPads and ebooks should anyone build a library?
To be clear, when we moved into our new house eighteen months ago, it was always the plan to build a library. However, when we had mouse issues (for which my wife soon found herself on a first-name-basis with the staff at Wildlife Management Pest Control Services), I’ve could never have anticipated my wife becoming such an ardent and efficient advocate for the project. In a sense, my dream library was the most expensive pest control operation in the history of man (actually, woman) vs. rodent.
Now, I have to admit something a little embarrassing. During the three months that construction of THE LIBRARY was underway, as I lay in bed at night staring into the inky blackness (after reading of course), I would drift to sleep deliciously envisioning how I would organize my books. Night after night. Friends familiar with my project and its obsessions would weigh in: Alphabetize, said one. Dewey Decimal system, reasoned another. By color scheme, chimed in a third.
But, I kid you not, this is not an easy question to answer when you have thousands of books (seriously) with subjects as varied as the works of Pope Benedict XVI and the choreographic genius of George Balanchine, the critical analysis of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the leadership secrets of Bear Bryant, the poems of Robert Frost and the speeches of Winston Churchill. If one tries to simply cram these books in via some ill-considered scheme, you not only can’t find the sought after book, you destroy the poetic order underlying the library’s entire reason for being.
So as construction concluded and I found myself (almost giddily) sitting in my chair with my elbows perched atop my desk, I looked at the empty shelves around me. What – when working, writing and thinking – do I want to see in these shelves as I look around? What will inspire me? Which books, like encouraging friends or uplifting role models, will I want smiling down at me each time I am seated here? Well, first I —
Then, BAM! I am jarred from my reverie when my wife walks in the room and inquires, “Why does it take you five days to put books on the shelf, when it should honestly take you fifteen minutes?”
Silence. And my blank stare.
Uh…how do I explain this?
Let me describe why we built this library and why such care should go into its organization. You see, this library – this dream of mine – is not for me alone. Now, granted, I am utterly absorbed (admittedly, self-absorbed) in making this room an escape – an oasis – from the demands and bustle of work and noise. As one friend rightly says, “You are creating your abbey – your monastery.” It will be a room to write and read and think. It will be a den to wistfully look at drawings and oven-fired clay projects from my daughters, pictures of impossibly younger versions of my wife and me, framed photographs of friends and heroes, and a place to read essays and speeches of those who will move me to sit a little taller and live just a bit better. Meanwhile, its sturdy walnut shelves, acacia wood floor and soft center rug will offer a sense of warmth and serenity, and an assuring structure and order. And perhaps – just perhaps – a Churchill bust will be looking on with a heroic scowl.
Again, this library is not for me alone. It is also designed as a refuge for my daughters. Only seven and ten years old, they have already moved their favorite books to the shelves they were allowed to pick out for themselves. Now above a shelf of Churchill biographies, rests Annabel’s Catholic Catechism and Peanuts Treasury. And below the works of Russell Kirk, are Vivian’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and Calvin and Hobbes. My girls are eagerly weighing in on the area rug to be selected and the sink-in chairs to be purchased. The library, I have been told, must have a beanbag chair. And so it will. But in truth, I hope the library is a room they will find as magical as I found the basement of my childhood home where my dad erected shelf after shelf (at that time, just wood planks on drilled in metal support structures) for my mom’s countless books. I hope they will look at row upon row of bindings, pull a book out, thumb through it and put it back only to pick up another. I hope they judge a book by its cover and someday read it only to realize how much more was inside. And perhaps in seeing so many books on G.K. Chesterton or Flannery O’Connor, Winston Churchill or Edmund Burke, Pope Benedict XVI or William Shakespeare, they will ask me why I like them, why they matter and what they did…
After all, a library reminds children not only of the wondrous adventures and growth to be found within the covers of a book…it also reminds them that there are stories and traditions and truths worth preserving to begin with. And these stories, traditions and truths should be read and re-read and then passed on to their own children someday. Someday.
Watching the stories of heroism, the timeless truths and the edifying traditions resting in your child’s hands, one page flipping after another as they lazily sink into the deep comfy chair.
That alone is reason enough to build a library.
Photo credit: Me (my library)
Please stay tuned to the second part of this essay, How to Organize a Library