At the turn of the millennium, Reid Byers, a computer systems architect, set out to build a private library at his home in Princeton, N.J. Finding few books on library architecture that were not centuries old and in a dead or mildewed language, he took the advice of a neighbor across the street, novelist Toni Morrison.
Morrison “once famously said if there is a book you want to read and it doesn’t exist, then you must write it,” recalled Byers, 74, in a video chat from his current home, in Portland, Maine.
The project stretched over a generation and culminated this year in a profusely illustrated, detail-crammed, Latin-strewn and yet remarkably unstuffy book called “The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom” (Oak Knoll Press).
The opus arrives at an ambivalent time for book owners. As the pandemic’s social and economic disruptions have nudged people into new homes, some are questioning whether it is worth dragging along their collections. Given the inflated costs of real estate and the capacity of e-readers to hold thousands of titles, maybe that precious floor and wall space could be put to other uses?
Lisa Jacobs, founder and CEO of Imagine It Done, a home organization service in New York City, said that out of hundreds of projects in the past few years, she can recall only three requests to organize books. In one of those examples, the arranged books were treated as a backdrop — to be admired, but not read. “The clientele that has collected books through the years are not as numerous for us,” she said.
And yet there are clear benefits in a pandemic to having a private sanctuary programmed for escapism.
“The tactile connection to books and the need for places of refuge in the home, both for work and for personal well-being, have made libraries a renewed focus in residential design,” said Andrew Cogar, president of Historical Concepts, an architecture firm with offices in Atlanta and New York.
Morgan Munsey, who sells real estate for Compass in New York, has seen well-groomed libraries in brownstones help spark bidding wars. “Even when I stage a house, I put books in them,” he said.
In “The Private Library,” Byers goes to the heart of why physical books continue to beguile us. Individually, they are frequently useful or delightful, but it is when books are displayed en masse that they really work wonders. Covering the walls of a room, piled up to the ceiling and exuding the breath of generations, they nourish the senses, slay boredom and relieve distress.
“Entering our library should feel like easing into a hot tub, strolling into a magic store, emerging into the orchestra pit, or entering a chamber of curiosities, the club, the circus, our cabin on an outbound yacht, the house of an old friend,” he writes. “It is a setting forth, and it is a coming back to center.”
Byers coined a term — “book-wrapt” — to describe the exhilarating comfort of a well-stocked library. The fusty spelling is no affectation, but an efficient packing of meaning into a tight space (which, when you think of it, also describes many libraries). To be surrounded by books is to be held rapt in an enchanted circle and to experience the rapture of being transported to other worlds.
So how many books does it take to feel book-wrapt? Byers cited a common belief that 1,000 is the minimum in any self-respecting home library. Then he quickly divided that number in half. Five hundred books ensure that a room “will begin to feel like a library,” he said. And even that number is negotiable. The library he kept at the end of his bunk on an aircraft carrier in Vietnam, he said, was “very highly valued, though it probably didn’t have 30 books in it.”
“What’s 5 times 40?” Alice Waters, chef and food activist, recently asked. (The question was rhetorical.) “Two hundred, 400, 600, 800,” she calculated, apparently scanning the bookcases around her and adding up their contents (she was speaking on the phone). “And then probably another 800,” she said, referring to other rooms in her bungalow in Berkeley.
Yes, Waters, 77, who opened a new restaurant in Los Angeles called Lulu last month, is officially book-wrapt. She owns hundreds of cookbooks organized by cuisine, as well as volumes on farming, nutrition, education, environmental calamity, victory gardens, chef memoirs, French gastronomic terminology, art, architecture, design and fiction.
The author of more than a dozen of her own books, she recently published “We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto,” written with Bob Carrau and Cristina Mueller.
Taking inventory in the room where she works (she added three of the custom bookcases last year), Waters verbally enacted the capricious browsing habits of a booklover on the loose, for whom all authors are alive, even when they are not. Her references skipped from journalist Michael Pollan to graphic and product designer Tibor Kalman to environmentalist poet and novelist Wendell Berry to Patti Smith. (Waters bought 25 copies of the rock star’s memoir, “Just Kids,” to give away as Christmas gifts.)
She uses a library ladder — her shelves rise that high. “But I’m not a reader; I’m a film person,” she said. “I like to be able to pull out a book and read a passage and be inspired.”
Reader or not, Waters’ sparrow-like style of dipping and hopping is, in Byers’ view, one of the great joys of library ownership. “The ability to browse among your books generates something completely new,” he said. “I like to think of it as a guaranteed cure for boredom.”
Alexandre Assouline’s loft in Manhattan is not technically book-wrapt, yet Byers would almost surely cut him slack. Chief of operations, brand and strategy at Assouline, the publishing company founded by his parents, Prosper and Martine Assouline, he recently designed a library of 400 books that fills a wall of the unit, clear to the 15-foot ceiling.
“Every day when I wake up, this is the first thing I see,” Assouline, 29, said of his collection, which is dominated by glamorous coffee-table books — the company’s specialty — and is visible from most spots in the one-bedroom apartment. Because he leases the unit, he had to erect the solid-walnut shelves without drilling into the wall; they are supported by posts compressed between the floor and ceiling.
Assouline designs private libraries for other people, too, and said he treats each as a mirror of the owner’s personality, giving weight to both books and objects. Gazing into Assouline’s own reflected depths, one finds whimsical Italian porcelain monkeys and rare antique-brass lions, a miniature statue group of the Three Graces and an ailing juniper bonsai tree that raised a sigh from him when its condition was pointed out. (He acknowledged that it really should not be indoors.)
“I want it to be alive,” he said of his display, meaning not just organic but changeable. “To me, a library is never done.”
It is easy to fall into a semantic swamp figuring out exactly where a jumble of books ends and a library begins, but we have clear ideas of what a room designated as a library should look like. You can thank the English country house for that, Byers said.
Having begun 4,000 years ago, as “strange little rooms in modest Mesopotamian houses” storing cuneiform tablets, libraries reached their Western European apotheosis by the 18th and 19th centuries as grand paneled spaces with fireplaces, ornate ceilings, built-in shelves, hard and soft chairs (for serious and relaxed reading), plush carpets, game tables, maybe a grand piano and secret doors (through which servants discreetly entered to tend fires).
“Libraries always refer to earlier libraries,” Byers said. Influencers include the 45-foot-long Italian Renaissance room with a barrel vault built in the mid-15th century by Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and, to a lesser extent, the bookcase-lined refuge of British diarist Samuel Pepys, who died in 1703. Asked to describe what the library of the future might look like, Byers flashed a photo of a room at Highclere Castle in England, the setting of the television series “Downton Abbey.”
Indeed, private libraries hew so closely to convention that it is often hard to say at a glance when any particular one was completed — even roughly. (In this way, libraries are the opposite of kitchens, which a practiced eye can date to within a half-decade.)
“It is often a woody room, or a room that has a deeper color sometimes, if painted,” Gil Schafer III, a New York architect, said of the libraries he routinely incorporates into residential projects. (However, when Schafer added a small library to his own retreat in Maine several years ago, he covered the walls in sheets of oak plywood rather than traditional paneling, to create an effect that was “beautiful but not fancy.”)
Even a postmodern sensation such as inventor and entrepreneur Jay S. Walker’s library, built in 2002 in Ridgefield, Conn. — which is dedicated to the history of human imagination and laid out like an M.C. Escher labyrinth, with books stacked 26 shelves high — makes clear references to antecedents, Byers points out in his book. “The recessed and paneled wall frames might have come from Kedleston,” an English country estate in Derbyshire, designed in 1759 by Robert Adam. And “the barrel vault over the library distinctly recalls Stourhead,” an 18th-century Palladian house in the English county of Wiltshire, he noted.
Which is not to say that if you build a library, it will be used as one. Roger Seifter, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, in New York City, typically designs houses that contain a main-floor room with bookshelves, which he described as “a more intimate type of living room.” The space is labeled a library on the plans but might morph into a den, study, media room or — especially now — home office. (Definitions quickly get murky, but architects seem to agree that libraries are rooms buffered as much as possible from noise and traffic and, thus, are naturally suited as work spaces.)
Conversely, rooms intended for nonbookish purposes are finding new lives as libraries. Schafer was not a maverick when he chose to put a sofa, bookcases and a television at one end of a dining room in one of his projects. “Dining rooms can be deadly rooms where there’s a table and chairs and no other use,” he said.
“Any large room looks wrong without the appropriate number of people in it,” Byers writes. “An unused living room looks empty. An empty ballroom is absolutely creepy; it looks as if it is waiting desperately for something to happen. A library, on the other hand, is delightful when full but still especially attractive when empty.”
Masses of books, Byers said, represent “delights that we hold in possibility” — the joy of being able to lift a hand and tap unexplored worlds. (Because who among us has read every single book in our libraries?) “I like to be in a room where I’ve read half the books, and I’d like there to be enough books that I cannot possibly read them in my remaining years,” he said.
Still, one can dream of completion, as Byers, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, apparently did when he inscribed this verse inside volumes from his own collection:
This book belongs to the
Rev. Reid Byers,
Who still hopes to read it
Before he expires.
Lasky is a freelance writer. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.