“What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!” “It ought to be good,” he replied; “it has been the work of many generations.”
That was, of course from Pride and Prejudice, the early 19th century classic by Jane Austen. Pemberley, the hero’s estate, comes to the reader’s mind as a sprawling mansion in the midst of woods and with a library that runs into miles and miles of shelves, loaded and groaning with the weight of books.
At least that’s the impression one is left with. The conversation quoted goes on to say how Mr Darcy ‘is always buying books’ to grow his library even more. That’s what is expected of him too.
Obviously, in those days, it was the norm for a genteel household in the West to have a library. In fact, from about 17th century to the 20th century, the library remained a standard feature, an escape for the ‘man of the house’ to work in peace, perhaps to hang out with his visiting ‘fellas’ or even as a flaunt-point for the neo-rich who were trying to climb the social ladder.
Remember with what chest-thumping pride Raina Petkoff in ‘Arms and the Man’ tells the fugitive soldier that ‘they had the only library in Bulgaria’? The personal library was certainly a potential tool to move up the social ranks, and it was held so across several centuries in at least two continents.
But libraries did exist in other civilizations, and much before the 17th century. The earliest known private library dates back to 1200 B.C. in ancient Syria. Then there is the Library of Azhurbanipal in Iraq dating to the 7th century B.C. Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome had private libraries. Renaissance Europe and the first colonists of North America not only had private libraries as a matter of course, but the formation of universities saw many private libraries being donated to the latter.
Coming back to modern private libraries, what books did these personal libraries stock? Classic writers’ works in hard-bound volumes, usually something like ‘a complete set of…’, was an obvious choice for the wealthy man’s library. This also meant that many personal libraries would stock the same titles. The rare working class person who had the privilege of a personal library had more personal favourites, and since books were considered a luxury acquisition, these libraries were a fascinating map of the life of the owner.
The expert or professional or academic library owner would stock books related to the subject he was passionate about, and till the public library evolved as a concept, knowledge was accessible in the hands of such collectors.
Libraries are a part of an individual’s personal estate and are often handed down generations. But at times, there is a break in the lineage and the books go to other people. There is the case of the late Sir Issac Newton’s library. Newton died intestate in 1727.
To settle his outstanding debts, one John Huggins purchased Newton’s personal library for his son Charles, rector of Chinnor in Oxford. The list made at the time says there were 1934 volumes in the library; obviously a very good number for the period.
When Charles Huggins died a quarter century later, there was no will or heirs; so the new rector James Musgrave purchased the library. The numbers now had shot up to 2385; Musgrave also compiled a detailed catalogue. In 1920, the library was a precious procession, for it contained rare volumes. But this did not stop an auction and the scattering of the library to various places.
In contemporary times, Neil Gaiman is a much-admired library owner. The basement of his house is packed tight with books of many genres. Here are a set of photos from Shelfari documenting Gaiman’s library, if you want to drool over them virtually. Woody Allen has a cool library. And Julia Child, author and pioneer TV chef, had a collection of approximately 5000 cook books alone. Check out a video on the collection here. Spiritual Guru Osho Rajaneesh left behind 80,000 plus books in his personal library when he died.
George Washington is said to have literally hoarded books. Umberto Eco had a 50,000 strong library in his house and also observed that he had not read many of them. The library was basically his research tool. Here’s a video of that marvellous place. As his repertoire demonstrates, a well-stocked mind needs a well-stocked library indeed. With online bookselling catching up and direct sellers catching up with new marketing ploys, many more people are accessing and reading books, and a personal library is a possibility now for those who have an inclination. And there is much advice floating round on how to build a personal library. Here’s a blog which says it rather well. Or you could create digital shelves from your personal collection.
Here are 5 apps to help you track your personal collection. That was basically about building a personal library; reading all the books you own is another matter altogether. The Japanese have a term for the act of buying books but not reading them: ‘tsundoku’. I wonder if Darcy did suffer from tsundoku!
(Suneetha Balakrishnan is a bilingual translator, writer and journalist from Kerala. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )
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