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Notes on...

The discreet charm of the London Library

A reading room of your own in St James’s Square... or books to take home for two months

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

Some rogue has been writing in my bedside book. A fastidious hand has crossed out misspelled words and written neat pencil corrections in the margin. ‘Dennis’ has become ‘Denis’, quotations have been reattributed and dates amended. More than one book scribbler has been at it. At times, the pedantic pencil becomes a biro, thrilled to have spotted mistakes the first reader missed. The book is The Golden Echo, memoirs of the Bloomsbury novelist David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, a scattershot speller and fact-checker.

I say it is my bedside book. Really, Garnett belongs to the London Library. But for the two months that a London Library book is allowed to me, I am possessively attached to it, and aggrieved when it is due for return.


The pencil marks of other borrowers in a book always pull me up short. It shatters the graceful illusion that the London Library is arranged for my benefit alone: a room of one’s own in St James’s Square. On the rare occasions that an email arrives to say another member has requested a book I have out, I react with disproportionate fury. What? My book? The next morning I will set off across Hyde Park in high dudgeon and storm down Piccadilly to return it. (At £495 a year, membership is cheaper than the gym and carrying hardbacks from St James’s to Bayswater does wonders for the muscles.)

Canvassing for a new private lending library began in 1839, when the Scottish historian and biographer Thomas Carlyle argued against the ‘buzz and bustle’, ‘importunate distraction’ and headaches of public rooms. He may have had in mind the reading room at the British Museum where a gentleman of letters (and his bluestocking daughter) might request a book, but not take it home. One had to share the benches with Grub Streeters toiling for the penny papers. Worse, it was full of women, who had the temerity, according to one Saturday Review reporter, to talk, whisper, giggle, flirt, read novels and eat strawberries at their desks. Carlyle’s London Library did admit women — if they did not rustle their silks too distractingly — and also let members take books home. ‘For any book requiring study,’ he wrote, ‘one night in a man’s own room might be worth a week in the other situation.’

That is the joy of the London Library. Of course you can work there, if you don’t find the people-spotting too absorbing: the telegenic classics don by the water cooler; the Sunday newspaper columnist in her tennis dress. There’s the conviviality of the reading room, where, at teatime, members in armchairs doze over the Burlington Magazine. For the ascetic and serious-minded, there are cramped desks among the fifth-floor stacks.

Best of all is the smash-and-grab raid. Collect your books from the issue hall and take them home. There you may read in blissful seclusion away from the sneezers and sniffers and clickers of pens. And for any London Librarian reading, I promise that, even in the solitude of my own study, I have never marked a book, nor turned the pages with strawberry-stained fingers.

The London Library marks its 175th birth-day with a three-day ‘Words in the Square’ event on 5–8 May. www.londonlibrary.co.uk


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