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