Fantasy library

As May is my month for reading fantasy, courtesy of Wyrd and Wonder, I thought a post combining reading and fantasy would be in order. In particular, I’d like to share with you my dream library space.

Lifestyle magazines and coffee table books often try to sell you a vision of an aesthete’s home. You know the kind of thing: the boxy shelving compartments, the minimalist appearance with knick knacks — sorry, carefully curated objets trouvés — breaking up any suggestion of solid phalanxes of books, with titles coded by colour, size or edition.

That’s not really for me.

Fan vaulting in Gloucester Cathedral cloisters

Then there are the grandiose libraries looking like warehouses with their industrial shelving or like private members’ clubs with their Gothic Revival accoutrements.

These are not for me either.

This is what I find more appealing: an intimate space with books spilling out into other rooms, organised chaos (or, more likely, chaotic organisation); here is where I’ll have a rough idea where individual titles are even though my ‘system’ may not appear logical to anyone else.

I have an idealised vision of a house with a staircase contained within a round tower, and bookshelves lining the curved walls with alcoves containing a seat and a table for browsing or taking notes. I imagine a bedroom with reading matter around the bed, all just an arm’s length away, and a dining table with built-in bookshelves. And a book room too, with a desk, but that hardly needs pointing out! (But no books in the bathroom or loos, that would just be gross.)

Interestingly, social media memes about reading generally chime in with my personal tastes, but not when it’s suggested that books should be used to construct furniture — bed bases, table legs, lamps and the like — that for me is sacrilege of the most ignorant kind.

I suspect my vision is probably linked to that described by T H White in his Arthurian novels. Here, for example, is Arthur revisiting Merlyn’s Combination Room after many years (as detailed in The Book of Merlyn, published in 1977) after the pair enter an ancient Cornish tumulus:

The Combination Room had changed since his last visit […] For there, on all the spare chairs and on the floor and on the tables, lying open to mark significant passage, were thousands of books of all descriptions, each one forgotten since it had been laid down for future reference, and all covered with a fine layer of dust.

After a long and eclectic list of authors and books, about only half of which I recognised, we’re given a catalogue of

encyclopedias, charts of the human and other bodies, reference books like Witherby, about every sort of bird and animal, dictionaries, logarithm tables, and the whole series of the Dictionary of National Biography. On one wall there was a digest made out in Merlyn’s longhand, which shewed, in parallel columns, a concordance of the histories of the human races for the last ten thousand years.

And so it goes on, in a verbal delineation which must owe much to White’s own library: a work table with a microscope and skulls, a small laboratory, storage for live insects, and the floor covered with Merlyn’s passing crazes, from croquet mallets to boomerangs and including glue next to a Fortnum & Mason’s food hamper.

And now as I read Andrew Caldecott’s fantastic Rotherweird (2017) I find again the trope of the eccentric’s library:

Ferensen’s tower comprised a single room where he thought, studied, exercised, cooked, watched the stars, stored books, slept, washed and lived. […] The room had the appearance of an intricate memory test, so cluttered were its contents.

The hexagonal tower had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three side; charts hung from the ceiling, horizontal poles operated by pulleys had “sticks, coats, hats, capes, a beekeeper’s suit and a parachute” hung from them and higher bookshelves “were accessed by large movable steps with solid sides not unlike a mediaeval siege-engine in appearance.” This miscellany suggested a reclusive polymath, the author comments.

I don’t think my fantasy library would ever be as cluttered as Merlyn’s or Ferensen’s or, say, those of eccentric Victorian rectors like Charles Kingsley: I don’t play croquet, for a start, or keep bees, nor am I a polymath. But I do think of personal libraries as models or maps of their curators’ brains.

As it is, my books — though not cladding the walls of the tower of my imagination — are perfectly serviceable as they are now, spread horizontally across the walls of the guest book room, er, bedroom.

View from guest beds…

But ultimately what I and many others want is a space of our own where we can consult and enjoy our books to our heart’s content, a virtual ivory tower where we can tell the world to go away because we’re, well, reading.

Book meme, disregarded punctuation and all

Do you have a fantasy library that you plan for or just one that you retire to in your imagination?

29 thoughts on “Fantasy library

  1. piotrek

    I count fan vaulting in Gloucester Cathedral among the finest things humanity produced 🙂
    Amen to what you said! I’m lucky enough to have the library of my dreams in the living room of my flat, although ideally I’d add a level or two and a gallery 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That fan vaulting was always worth an admiring visit (long before Harry Potter upped its popularity), the cloisters like an avenue through a stone forest or, more aptly, a petrified topiary walk. I neglected the cathedral far too long until a recent trip to Gloucester allowed me to snap a few choice views (such as this one).

      A gallery, however small, would be brilliant! Hmm, I’ll get my architect to adapt the designs for my ideal sanctum to include one… 😁

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  2. Ha! I love the description in your first paragraph: those magazine spreads and coffee table books of personal libraries full of books you can tell no one reads. The emphasis is never about the books (hello…it’s called a library!), but the colors, layout and aesthetic design of the room.

    I have two fantasy libraries I would so love to get locked in over a weekend. Both I have visited and perused titles, but they are part of historical homes turned museum, so the public can’t actually read in them, hence the “getting locked in.” 🙂 Also, both have elements of must haves besides the books: over-stuffed chairs and couches to read and nap on; a big table to spread out books, pen, paper, laptop for writing and research; AND the all important fireplace.

    The first is The Huntington Library in Pasadena (San Marino), California. The other is the library room at Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California. Both the Huntington and Hearst families were well-known in politics and culture. As book collectors their shelves hold the great histories, science and literature of decades past. Dream on!

    Fortunately, I am very happy with my little home and the floor to ceiling bookshelves that frame a very large window. I hope to extend the shelves someday along one of the walls.

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    1. You may remember I did a post about the bookshelves of some literary figures which you commented on (https://wp.me/p2oNj1-2Zh) and some of them had the table, comfy chairs and “the all important fireplace”, adding of course to the ambience. 🙂

      I’ve heard of the Hearst family of course, and the name Huntington Library definitely rings a bell. The only US library I’ve visited is the Suzzallo Library in the University of Washington, Seattle: in ‘Collegiate Gothic’ style it is a wonderful space but completely lacks the necessary intimacy, as you can imagine! Still, floor to ceiling bookshelves, that’s good enough for me (providing the ceiling isn’t too high).

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Coming from a damp island off continental Europe, to me Seattle felt much like home! (Curiously, I’ve only been to the States twice, both times to Seattle, and that only because I was accompanying my wife who was visiting for academic purposes, once for lecturing at the invitation of Melinda Gates.)

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  3. So many imaginary libraries! The best home library I’ve seen recently was actually at my aunt’s house in Pasadena. She and her guy (L) had a beautiful Arts & Crafts home that they have made wonderful. One small room was turned into a library, and L had built shelves all the way around and sticking out into the room to make small alcoves. It’s fabulous. The living room is also full of bookshelves, including their double sets of Grove’s and the OED, because neither of them could stand to give up their own sets.

    As long as we were in Pasadena, we went to the Huntingdon too!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would love freestanding bookshelves that extended from the wall to create alcoves, Jean, as your aunt has, preferably with convenient seating, and how wonderful to have an Arts and Craft home! I’m definitely envious. Two sets of Grove’s and the OED — well, I’m in awe!

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    1. We’re not told what exercises Ferensen did, so it may have been running up and down his siege ending ladder (possible), wearing his beekeeper’s hat and a cape and running around (unlikely) or maybe a rowing machine in one of the corners (dubious, even though the river Rother is not far away). To be honest, that wasn’t what principally concerned me. 😁

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        1. You and me both, Gert, always searching down byways and getting mightily diverted!

          Trivia derives of course from trivium, the place where three roads meet, giving us a forum to chat, go left or right or back the way we came.

          Alternatively, the trivium represents three of the seven liberal arts, namely grammar, logic and rhetoric: entirely apt for us inveterate linguistic nit-pickers…

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  4. Should I mention that our house actually does have a hexagonal tower housing a spiral staircase? Maybe not! It’s not at all as grand as it sounds; my books are stored just like yours – on shelves in the guest room. Though you have me thinking now. I’m looking at that empty wall in the staircase tower and wondering… 😀

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    1. Time to put those shelves up, Sandra, and transfer books or acquire more to fill the empty spaces! Anyway, I am deeply envious not only of your hexagonal tower but that spiral staircase…

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  5. It’s not as good as you might think, Chris; there are definite downsides. Not that I’m complaining of course! I shall constantly see bookshelves as I go up and down now though. I may have to get Bernie on this!

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  6. I like a library that is for people who love to read, not for show or neatness or detailed, hyper-organised cataloguing. I don’t think I would sleep without piles of books by the bed, or relax in a home where shelves didn’t line most wall space in most rooms. I love places where books are dotted about in little corners and have little bits of paper inside where someone followed a theme or idea through the text. I suppose what I really love the most are my home, and the homes of fellow avid readers. When I visit someone who has to move a pile of books from a side table just to have room to put down a cup of tea I immediately feel at home.

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    1. I’m guessing, Jo, that you, like me, make a character judgement when you go into somebody’s home for the first time and search in vain for the presence of books, never mind bookshelves. And bedrooms with no bedside books, what’s that about?! Your last sentence expressed my sentiments exactly!

      Mind you, I don’t have notes on bits of paper in books but I do have filled notebooks scattered around, and bookmarks or postcards inserted wherever my reading stalled or got interrupted or (with non-fiction especially) where a key passage needs to be accessed rapidly.

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      1. 🙂 It’s not so much a judgement on folks who don’t share my interest as a sense of joy when someone does! I’m afraid I do do the bits of paper in books, along with notes which I insert in various pages when I want to look at something more deeply. It tends to be with those books which catch my imagination so much that I really want to understand them completely. ( A couple of times I’ve come across my own notes years later. It’s quite interesting to see how my thinking has changed. )

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  7. My apartment has a 30-foot-long hallway, and that’s where the bulk of my bookshelves are. More, of course, are in my office, den, 2 bedrooms, and kitchen (cookbooks!). But none in the dining room. I don’t mind eating while I read (or reading while I eat), but the dining room is for company and pulling out a book in front of guests is just too, shall we say, antisocial? (I visited someone whose entire family read through dinner, and I’ll never forget the moment of realizing they weren’t going to stop just because I was there. It was the quietest dinner I’d ever eaten, and I eat alone a lot — a single person not speaking is nowhere near as quiet as 6 people not speaking.)

    BTW, reading in the bathtub is part of my nightly ritual, but for some reason I don’t keep books in the bathroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds like you have your ideal environment (bookwise anyway!) right now, Lizzie. Thirty foot long, eh? At a rough calculation — average books per shelf, times number of shelves, times length of hallway — that’s a lot of books!

      I occasionally read in the bath but being a clumsy person I’m ever anxious about dropping the book in the water; also, I worry about books in a damp atmosphere. If I’m eating alone I often read a newspaper while listening to a CD or check social media, less often a book unless I’m desperate to finish the last few pages, but never when eating in company; I guess all families develop their own social dynamic but my parents’ fierce injunction (“meals are a time for polite conversation”) has forever left me anxious if ever eating in company turns out to be a silent affair.

      (My childhood memories though are of interrogations at the dinner table: What did you do at school today? Why didn’t you get an ‘A’ for your homework? Why haven’t you tidied your room? Perhaps my residual anxiety has as much to do with not having a ready answer for such questions…)

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  8. I remember being dumbstruck with awe when I entered the library of Trinity University in Dublin. The feeling of history housed, contained…

    But a personal library? Oh I would LOVE a cozy space. We have one, after a fashion, by my workspace in the basement: several bookcases with mysteries, fantasy, writing, lit fic, and Bo’s historical texts, cinema texts, and Dad’s religious texts.

    But it’s all currently overrun by the Sodor Rail Armada, so it’s not all that relaxing. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used to have a Trinity University Library photo as a screensaver, but have never been there in person: what an experience it must’ve been for you! Just a little envious…

      I think you’ve shared pictures of your workspace before now on your blog, overtaken by the colourful chaos that is a typical home of a lively family! But the Sodor Rail Armada is new to me—I have a feeling the Reverend W Awdry would be bemused… 🙂

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