Oct 10 2016

The Jungle Room

The House of Twenty Thousand Books

The House of Twenty Thousand Books

Some of Hillway’s rooms had, by the time my generation came on the scene, ceased to have any functional purpose; the bibliographic flora had simply run rampant. In the diabolically cluttered little upstairs “office” or “study” — a room that Mimi’s mother, Bellafeigel, had inhabited in the 1950s for the alst four years of her life — spirals of reference books, Jewish art volumes, and bound collections of newspapers reached up toward the ceiling, surrounded by mountains of miscellaneous papers and handwritten correspondence. At some point, the room had become simply unusable; Chimen’s response had been to lock it from the outside and hide it from view. It was “the jungle room,” he mischievously told his friend David Mazower (the great-grandson of the Yiddish playwright and novelist Scholem Asch, whom Chimen had known in London decades earlier), when diving into one of the piles of papers to find a bound volume of rare Yiddish newspapers and into another to retrieve an armful of precious Bundist pamphlets, printed in late-tsarist Russian on onionskin. He always carried little black leather pouches full of numerous keys–to safes, to hidden rooms, to filing cabinets. Only he know which keys opened which locks, so it was a sure bet that one one would trespass into his deathtrap of an office accidentally. That said, when one of my cousins did sneak in behind him on one occasion, she saw him disappear into a tunnel through the piles that, she swore later, was carved out to just fit his form. In that room, after his death, my father and aunt found, buried under stacks of papers, old Russian folk art, as well as a small eighteenth-century Armenian Bible, perhaps four or five inches high and almost as thick, posted to Chimen decades earlier, the envelope in which it was contained never opened.

— Sasha Abramsky, The House of Twenty Thousand Books

Jul 9 2016

Francie Nolan at the library

9780060736262The library was a little old shabby place. Francie thought is was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church. She pushed open the door and went in. She liked the combined smell of worn leather bindings, library paste and freshly inked stamping pads better than she like the smell of burning incense at high mass.

Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones. She remembered that the first author had been Abbott. She had been reading a book a day for a long time now and she was still in the B’s. Already she had read about bees and buffaloes, Bermuda vacations and Byzantine architecture. For all of her enthusiasm, she had to admit that some of the B’s had been hard going. But Francie was a reader. She read everything she could find: trash, classics, time tables and the grocer’s price list. Some of the reading had been wonderful; the Louisa Alcott books for example. She planned to read all the books over again when she had finished with the Z’s.

Saturdays were different. She treated herself by reading a book not in the alphabetical sequence. On that day she asked the librarian to recommend a book.

May 2 2011

a library in a turf hut in the arctic circle

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel KpomassieI can’t believe it took me so long to find this book. Tete-Michel’s An African in Greenland was first published in 1981, republished twenty years later, and it was ten years after that it came to my attention–and I’m the kind of person who goes looking for books. It makes me wonder many things, like what else is out there still waiting to be discovered, and would the book have survived to be found if it only existed as a digital file on some server?

This passage belongs in my collection of “rooms full of books” even though there isn’t a book in the room at all. It is, however, a library: kept by an old Inuit man who lives in a turf hut in Upernavik, Greenland–well above the Arctic Circle.  The world is a curious place.

In his own way, old Robert was a “bookworm” whose favorite reading matter was restricted entirely to periodicals. Every week for many years now he had been getting hold of magazines dealing with “world affairs.” And even now when he avoided going out as much as possible because of the curiosity his appearance aroused in the village—his wife, his daughter, his youngest son Niels, aged fifteen, and his two married sons who also lived in Upernavik, continued to buy them for him. But therein lay the rub: these magazines, reviews and newspapers began to make such a clutter on the floor that one day old Rebekka suggested throwing them out the window. Alarmed, the old man began sorting out this junkheap and pinning on the wall the articles he wanted to reread. And so—casually, almost unintentionally—a first layer of printed pages spread over the four walls, followed in time by a second layer, a third, and even a fourth layer…The first pages dated from five years back and, as new pages had kept being added to the old ones, my host had great difficulty locating old articles or documents he needed.”

From An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie, published by nyrb classics, 2001.

Nov 18 2010

A Moth and a bookcase

This excerpt is from Todorov’s Zift: Socialist Noir. Because there is nothing more noir than a filled bookcase in a socialist country. The character speaking is called “Moth.”

On the wall across from the cabinet was a dusty bookcase containing all sorts of books. It gave me pleasure and peace of mind to sniff old books, to read their titles, feel their spines, inhale their dust. The smell of a well-bound book cures the ailing soul. I don’t know why, but it’s a fact already recognized in olden times by the monks who invented the ingredients of the glue used to bind books. Old books breathe, and that’s why they smell; their breath is dusty because  it’s ancient.

My fingers started roaming the shelves and my eyes were chasing after them. I pulled out volumes at random, browsing and sniffing them, until suddenly I noticed a book placed upside down, with the letters facing downward. It was a volume of letters from jail by the poet-rebel Venets Tsvetarski, sentenced to death for revolutionary activity. It was titled Tenderness and Clamor, compiled by Bozhura Chepinska, a favorite sweetheart of the poet and a poet herself, published in Vienna in 1925.

I open the volume to the ribbon bookmark, turn on the desk lamp for added coziness, settle down comfortably in the armchair, and begin to read.

Apr 18 2010

The Library of Matthias Corvinus, The Raven King

The Raven King by Marcus TannerHow is it that I never knew one of the greatest libraries amassed in Europe during the Renaissance–second only to the collection of the Medicis and the Pope,  belonged to an all but forgotten Hungarian king, Matthais Hunyadi, also known as Matthias Corvinus, the Raven King? The man whom Italy looked to keep the Ottoman Turks at bay, whose capital could only be reached from Italy by three months of hard traveling over a bandit-infested mountain wilderness, and who yet drew Italian scholars, poets and intellectuals to his court, (along with certain political prisoners and royalty in exile, such as Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, and sometimes as Dracula). A man who was universally regarded as the ideal philosopher-king.

The King’s Trophy and Sanctuary

Then there was the library, the King’s trophy and sanctuary. Here, Naldo  Naldi wrote, sunbeams poured through high, stained glass windows, casting curious patterns on the vaulted ceilings. Beneath tall lancet windows, light fell on to the King’s couch, a ‘bed with golden coverings on which the royal hero is often wont to snatch some peaceful rest for his limbs.’ Here the King reclined, scrutinising a recently purchased illuminated manuscript, or chairing a debate between rival clerics or philosophers… (p.2)

In reverence of the Goddess of Wisdom

In the library, light also fell on to jewel-encrusted veils, set in place to shield the most expensive and cherished items of the collection from the bleaching sunlight. These books did not lie stacked upon one another in heavy chests like the majority of volumes. They stood upright on snakeskin tripods, waiting for the hand of the King, Queen, or the librarians, to part the curtain and reveal the liquid colors beneath.

According to Naldi, the curious bookrests attracted particular interest ‘because the spotted skin of a snake covered those tripods and a shining gold-colored cloth covered them, adorned with so many heavy gems and sparkling precious stones that you would think Matthias had accumulated whatever the kings of Persia are thought to have possessed.’ The Florentine likened the care lavished on these exotic tripods to Matthias’s reverence for the goddess of wisdom, for it was the tripods that ‘receive the greatest authors’ and wisdom itself that ‘opens the books that ought to be read, which the ancient ones composed, and which taught what wisdom was.’ (p.2)

Matthias CorvinusThe literary tastes of an alpha-male

The surviving 216 volumes, containing more than 600 works, show that Matthias had the literary tastes of a classic ‘alpha male’.  It has often been noted that he had a marked preference for secular as opposed to religious works. Indeed, once one subtracts liturgical aids such as bibles, gospels, psalters, missals and brevaries, which in any case belonged in the separate palace chapel library, there are not many books like Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, now kept in Melk Abbey, Austria, which can be categorised as devotional works. Even within the broad category of secular works from the library it is easy to spot Mattias’s particular enthusiasms: war stories, lives of great rules, and books about inventions, geography, medicine, natural wonders and the stars. (p.7)

–From The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of his Lost Library, by Marcus Tanner (Yale University Press, 2008)

Apr 9 2010

My room(s) full of books

Library Tour from Nicki Leone on Vimeo.

Feb 20 2010

the 351 books of irma arcuri

The 351 Books of Irma ArcuriThis book was one long biblio-fantasy: great literature, re-bound with a writer’s love for the story within, an artist’s eye, an artisan’s care and feel for the beauty in the volume, seeded with secret messages, stories and codes, all written from one disappeared lover to the man she left behind. How can you resist? I couldn’t.

There are quite a few rooms full of books in this novel…nearly every scene is somehow described as a setting for one of Irma Arcuri’s beautiful books. But here are two of my favorites from the novel.

The arrival of Irma’s books:

The books arrived in one week, two refrigerator-sized boxes with protective packaging. They were packed alphabetically, impact-guarded, and marked fragile. He shelved them the way she shelved them–alphabetically, with no consideration of history, nationality, genre, or theme. They transcended these divisions, and Philip knew–somehow understood–that this was why she’d had them. They were splendorous together, in their cloth and leather bindings of jewel toned yellow, green, red or blue, or the more austere black and burgundy. No jackets, with titles embossed in gold, silver, brass, or iron. Most she had re-bound or restored herself, using period materials and tools. This was easy, she told him, because we use tools similar to those used since the fifteenth century. I could walk into an eighteenth century bookbinder’s shop, she explained, and have no trouble sewing up Defoe’s first volumes. Her shop and her mentor’s shop looked like museums, with their mallets and presses, awls and knives. Their work floors held the smells of old leathers, parchment, and linseed. Sometimes in their dark corners he would find a jar filled with a petrified volume soaking in amber linseed, the book’s fused pages beginning to separate like petals. If he lingered too long by one of these jars, she would crouch behind it and peer at him through the xanthic oil, her face magnified, tinted, and swirled around sharply focused eyes. Eyes aimed at him, not the sloughing book fossil. If we stir it softly with a wooden spoon, she taunted, it will all dissolve like a sugar cube in tea. (p.10)

The book collector and her husband:

Miriam Haupt loved Irma. She brokered antiquarian books, but in her retirement had become exclusively a collector. She and her husband owned a small apartment building, painted blue alongside the many other apartment buildings mortared together, all left to face to the colors of again paper along one continuous wall. Each flat in the Haupt building was filled with books. The Haupts themselves dwelled on the second floor, every room lined with bookshelves. The other floors were occupied exclusively by books and a wandering cat to fend off mice. Each decade of Miriam’s retirement seemed marked by the ousting of a tenant and the designation of another floor for books. Her husband Vlad Ballestreros, a professor of mycology at the university, often got himself lost in the stacks. He loved their smells, the breath of the molds and fungi he studied. Whenever Philip went with Irma to visit, Senor Ballestreros could be heard thumping around on one of the floors and he would eventually call down, or up, in his shaky Castilian croak and say he would be right there to join. He would only appear hours later, blinking and out of breath as though he had just surfaced from a dive or dream.

Dec 5 2009

trapped in airports

Okay, this doesn’t really qualify as a “room full of books.”  It’s more of a “what books are in the room?” post. But I just spent approximately 24 of the last 48 hours on airplanes and in airports (note to self, Vegas is too far away to be a “day trip”). Naturally, I found myself peering at all the books people were reading. With somewhat surprising results:

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen.   Really, since this was the very first book I noticed someone reading, I thought it was a good omen.

Killer Angels by Jeff Shaara

Santa Fe Rules by Stuart Woods

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.   I have a private theory that in any given group of people reading books, one of them will be reading this one.

Three Cups of Tea

Olive Kitteredge

Great Expectations (Penguin Classics edition) Which begs the question, why, o why would anyone want to read a Dickens novel sitting in a center seat near the engines on a four hour flight that was over-booked?

Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. That would be me. The guy two rows up may have been trying to escape the crowded conditions by reading Dickens. But I, on the other hand, was reading about Joseph Banks in Tahiti. He was having a really good time.

I didn’t see a single Kindle or other eReader, and I was looking. Even the folks with iPhones seemed to be mostly playing games and watching videos. I’m not sure what it means that the books I saw people reading on a plane trip to Vegas included Dickens and Tim O’Brien, but I found it oddly comforting.

Jun 27 2009

Gatsby’s Library

The Great Gatsby

I’ve been re-reading Gatsby. And oddly enough, although I am quite convinced that this is the perfect novel, and despite the fact that I’m on my third or fourth reading, and that I am usually inclined to remember when a book talks about rooms full of books, I remembered almost nothing about this odd little scene in Gatsby’s library.

I suppose everyone who prides themselves on their personal library has secretly imagined their books as a kind of ultra-flattering self-portrait. Who hasn’t gazed at their own bookshelves and imagined, smugly, what impressive conclusions a stranger doing the same might draw about their their owner?  Fitzgerald has a rather biting, unkind comment about this sort of self-conceit in this scene, which occurs before the narrator has ever spoken to Gatbsy. Up until this moment, he knows his neighbor only from a late evening sighting on the lawn, and a collection of wild rumors about his exploits during the Great War.

The bar, where we glanced first, was crowded but Gatsby was not there. She couldn’t find him from the top of the steps, and he wasn’t on the veranda. On a chance we tried an important-looking door, and walked into a high Gothic library, panelled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.

A stout, middle-aged man with enormous owl-eyed spectacles was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.

“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.

“About what?”

He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.

“About that. As a matter of fact, you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”

“The books?”

He nodded.

“Absolutely real–have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact they’re absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you.”

Taking our skepticism for granted he rushed to the bookcasses and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”

“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too–didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.

Jun 16 2009

A is for Austen, B is for Bronte

The Thirteenth TaleA woman describes her father’s bookshop, which “In the opinion of our bank manager, it is an indulgence, one that my father’s successes entitles him to. Yet in reality–my father’s reality and mine; I don’t pretend reality is the same for everyone–the shop is the very heart of the affair.”

A is for Austen, B is for Bronte, C is for Charles and D is for Dickens. I learned my alphaget in this shop. My father walking along the shelves, me in his arms, explaining alphabetization at the same time as he taught me to spell. I learned to write there, too: copying out names and titles onto index cards that are still there in our filing box, thirty years later. The shop was both my home and my job. It was a better school for me than school ever was, and afterward it was my own private university. It was my life.”

–Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale (Atria, 2006)