At The London Library
Like an old book jammed into a crowded bookcase, the London Library sits wedged in the corner of St James’ Sq. Years ago, I had the privilege of a subsidised membership for a spell, and I loved to come here and browse the labyrinth of shelves containing over a million volumes. Thus it was a sentimental pilgrimage to return this week for a visit, deliver copies of my own books for their collection, and take a tour around the newly-refurbished premises.
Before I joined the London Library, I had been defeated by the catalogues of the great libraries, with their obscure numerical systems and form-filling requirements just so that you might return to consult the books you wanted now, on another day. At the London Library, there is none of this soul-destroying rigmarole and you are free to explore the collection by wandering among the miles of bookshelves, engendering unexpected discoveries and facilitating the pursuit of whims that would be impossible in libraries where the stack is closed to readers.
Once you walk through the narrow entrance, the building widens out with staircases leading off in different directions. On the first floor at the front is the magnificent nineteenth-century reading room with leather armchairs arranged around the fire. I cannot have been the first writer to shame myself by coming here in the winter months to escape a cold house and take advantage of the central heating, but then fallen into a doze instead of reading.
Beyond the reading room, lies the stack of books that is the true wonder of this library. Towering shelves rise through three or four storeys with gantries of translucent glass and metal grilles which permit access for readers. Wandering in pursuit of a particular volume, you may come to yourself in the midst of this structure and be overcome with vertigo, gazing down through the floors below or peering up at the stack above.
It is a physical experience that has its intellectual counterpart when you take a volume from the shelf and open it – standing there in the depths of the building – and begin to realise how many books there are that you will not ever read, even if you spent the rest of yours days in there. You recognise the limitless depth of the intellectual literary universe. This is one of those places of which it may truly be said that you can go in and never come out again in this life. How fortunate then that the London Library permits its readers to borrow a generous number of books and keep them for months on end, as long as no-one else wants them.
When I first came to the London Library, I was quite early in my quest for the subjects that would engage my working life as writer and, in many ways, this was a fruitful place to search and tap the reserves of past literary endeavour. I found it inspiring, after first discovering classic pieces of writing through their paperback reprints, to encounter those same works in their early editions upon the shelves here and it brought those writers closer to see their books as they saw them. In my mind, I equated the darkness of the stacks with a mine where I searched, delving into the collective imagination. Isolated from daylight, to me it was a timeless netherworld where the spirits of past authors lingered, waiting to be sought out.
At the beginning of my life as a writer, I used to read far more than I wrote but – as the years passed – the balance has shifted and now I am so busy producing my stories every day that I hardly have any time left to read anymore. With this thought in mind, I left the London Library and did not envy the bookworms. I walked out through the crowded streets of Piccadilly, alive with the drama of human existence in the afternoon sunlight, and I realised that the city is my library of infinite curiosity now and everyone I meet is a book – even if, in my modest interviews, I commonly only get as far as the first chapter.
The reading room
Librarians of 1935
Archive photographs courtesy of London Library
The London Library , 14 St James’s Sq, SW1Y 4LG