Paul Johnson

And Another Thing | 24 May 2008

Heaven may be the perfect library but some on earth come close

I sympathise with those mediaeval Jewish rabbis who, asked to describe heaven, pictured it as a perfect library. For them books were, or ought to be, inseparable from holiness. The words themselves, even the ink, had divine attributes. One 11th-century rabbi said that the works already present welcomed or rejected newcomers. They sensed whether new writings were edifying or not. If so, they would crowd themselves together and say: ‘Welcome! Plenty of room here!’ If they smelt wickedness, they would spread out: ‘No place here for you! Go away!’ So the heavenly library was always equally full, or empty, like a magic drinking vessel. This dealt with the main difficulty of an earthly library, a problem which is insoluble. A library must be full, for nothing is more repellent than empty shelves. On the other hand, if it is full, how is space to be found to accommodate new books, without which the library dies?

My perfect library would be a wing of a country house, with very high ceilings and a gallery; below it French windows opening on to a meadow with trees in the distance. Shelves would cover all the walls, with an oak staircase on wheels to get at the higher reaches, and a spiral staircase to the gallery, also full of books. A door would lead to an inner room, my study, with French windows leading on to an orchard. A spiral staircase within this room would ascend to a small bedroom above, with a tiny bathroom and rudimentary kitchen. So I could, at need, live a self-contained existence within my library-stronghold. In the main room would be a large mahogany table with racks containing portfol-ios of drawings and watercolours by its sides. No pictures on the walls — just books — and no nonsense of terrestrial and celestial globes.

I have two libraries.

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