Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Makes a Good Personal Library?

It’s quite difficult to answer the question of what makes a good personal library. 

For some, it’s a collection of books on one subject of special interest to the owner:  Golf, Dance, Art, Science, Fiction.

For others, it’s one made up of rare books, coveted books, valuable books.

For still others it’s fine and beautiful bindings, regardless of the subject.

For me, it’s anything I’ve enjoyed reading and hope to dip back into again.

And other than books, what else makes a personal library?  Furniture, bookends, artwork, beautiful or interesting objects that are meaningful to the library’s owner.

My personal libraries – and I have two – are primarily made up of some of the duplicates from my bookstore, and of books that I love – important or not; and it encompasses a wide range of subjects. 

I have separate copies of some of the same books in my two libraries, as I can’t bear to be apart from them when I’m in my other home.  I don’t necessarily need to re-read all of these books, but just passing by and seeing them on my bookshelves gives me pleasure; and sometimes, a flash back to a memory from my past.

One such is a book from my childhood which disappeared but which I recently managed to find in a dusty old bookshop.  It cost pennies when I was a child, but it cost me a great deal to purchase it today.  And in re-reading it now, I can see why my mother chose to buy it for me when I was a young girl.

BEHOLD, YOUR QUEEN is the [quite embroidered] story of the Biblical Queen Esther. It's a “fairy tale” romance that little girls can love, and which makes Cinderella pale by comparison.  But Esther is not just depicted here as the penniless, beautiful maiden carried away by the handsome prince; she’s depicted as something of an “action figure," a powerful person in her own right, and one who never lets fear stand in her way as she almost single-handedly saves her people. 

(Perhaps Esther is the precursor to STAR WARS’ Princess Leah?  Or the inspiration for her?  If so, then creator George Lucas certainly knew this story well!)

Another pleasure of mine is enjoying so-called “quality” paperbacks.  (I presume they mean good quality…?)   They are larger than the paperbacks you find at the drugstore, (often equivalent in size to the hard cover) and are made of better paper - strongly glued and sometimes even sewn - and with clear, attractive type.  I have lots of these.  Even when I own the hardcover, I sometimes have one of these paperbacks along side it.  Why?  I don’t know why;  I just like them! 

Mine are very eclectic libraries, indeed!

But as I keep saying, books alone don’t make the library.  It’s also the artwork and the bookcases, and the rugs, and the furniture, and the like. 

I’ve moved a lot, and I’ve carried my books with me from place to place, from state to state, from house to house.  Depending on the other features of my library, the same books have a different feeling of importance or playfulness or both.

Here are some photos of a few of the libraries I’ve had through the years, including ones from the previous carnation of my store.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that many of the books, furniture and objects are the same, but the “feel” is totally different from library to library:  “serious,” relaxed, ornate, modern.

I design libraries for people, and I love to play with the settings.  Buying the necessary, the wanted books is easy; making the space one in which the owner would be happy to spend time – one which represents the “who” that the owner is or would like to be – is more challenging.   And more fun. 

Here is a link to an article in the FINANCIAL TIMES that shows the libraries belonging to several authors:  not just the books, but the book cases and other appurtenances in their libraries.  Without reading a word written by any of these authors, you might decide which of them writes books you might want to read, and which of them does not.  You might be wrong, but it’s not a bad place to begin, as a personal library can reveal one's soul.  

What kind of library do you have? 
What kind of library do you want?


Anonymous said...

I really don't have a library. I have a few books which I really liked and kept as well as a few really old books but the rest I gave away when I moved and am giving away to the library in my town.

Most of the voluminous private libraries I've seen are for show only.

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, may I move into one of your libraries? We have leather chairs, but none of them match; on the other hand, we have a lot of original art, since my husband is a painter, so I guess I'll stick with our mismatched stuff. I'm pleased that you have old favorites and paperbacks in your libraries. Book-lover, not mere collector, you!

Anonymous said...

   ......... just read your piece, What Makes a Good Personal Library?, and I loved it.  I've  yet to go to the Financial Times link, but I will.  I'm going to share it with my sister. Thanks for sharing.  You write beautifully!


Anonymous said...

Just went to the Financial Times link and loved that too. I enjoyed seeing the lists of these author's favorite books and don't know what I would list as my favorites if I had to do so.......which I don't.


Ester said...

Ester said...

I'd like you to know how much I enjoy reading Your blogs. This one is really amazing. The pictures of your libraries are great. I am looking forward to your next blog.

es said...

Hi, Man of la Book.

Your definition of a personal library is just as good as mine: a few good books and a comfortable chair.

And I know what you mean about many private libraries being for show only. Is there any bookseller who hasn’t had people ask to buy books by the yard? And how many private “libraries” have I seen where the beautiful bindings were covers of blank pages!?!? (Still, they chose book bindings to look at rather than a collection of Rolex watches – which I’ve also seen!)

But many private libraries can be “personal” ones as well – which is what I titled my post – in that the books need not be valuable, but only important to you in some way: important enough to drag heavy boxes of books from place to place, as I (and others) have done over and over again.

Thanks for reading and posting.

As for you, Pamela: you can move into any one of my libraries any time you want; and I will be happy to sit in one of your comfortable mis-matched chairs and look at your husbands paintings. And I’ll also look at the pristine pages of your books and think about how I would mark them up (the polite phrase is “annotate them”) if only you’d let me….

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, you scare me! Not with the invitation or hint of a return visit but by the threat to mark up my books! I know you are only kidding but may restrict you to the coverless copy of the poems of Robert Burns. Not much could hurt that book.

Mary G. said...


Enjoy your blogs and your idea of a good library.