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At The London Library

August 21, 2014
by the gentle author

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

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Squirrel Nutkin permalink
    August 21, 2014

    How did that owl get there!

    (It mek mi nervous)

  2. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    August 21, 2014

    Delightful post, gentle author!

    Thank goodness finally there were a few women reading at The London Library!! What a place to be lost in!
    Just love that owl perched high above, watching, watching……..

  3. August 21, 2014

    Yes, a wonderful place indeed!

  4. August 21, 2014

    I bet not many librarians wear aprons nowadays.

    I went to the London Library once on an errand. It felt very special. I must go again as a free spirit 🙂

  5. August 21, 2014

    What an evocative article! I have the great privilege, in the course of my work, of access to the ‘closed’ stacks in Cambridge University Library, and the serendipitous finding of something new and unexpected a couple of books away from the one I was actually looking for is one of the best aspects of the job.

  6. Hardy permalink
    August 21, 2014

    Yes, stay out of libraries GA – except for writing about them. Today’s piece, a heady concoction of prose and pics, is sublime.

  7. August 21, 2014

    Others will differ, but for me if there is a single reason to stay in this undoubtedly wonderful but at times pestilential city, it is this place. I doubt that it has an equal anywhere in the world

  8. August 21, 2014

    Ah, yes, St James’ Square — the place where I park my car when in London! Need to see the excellent library the next time!

    I have the same feelings as the GA when strolling through and sitting in the leather armchairs of MY library here in Kassel, the “Murhardsche Bibliothek”:

    Love & Peace

  9. Sarah C permalink
    August 21, 2014

    Loving libraries. Great photos. Their reading room is much nicer than ours for we have no fireplace though there are a great many John Singer Sargent murals that in large part make up for it.

  10. August 21, 2014

    I’ve just discovered your blog so I don’t know if this is a regular feature of your posts, but I love the juxtaposition of archival photos with new ones. Thanks for sharing chapter’s of London’s many “books.”


  11. August 21, 2014

    What a wonderful place. Reminds me a bit of the library at the Bishopsgate Institute. Thanks for the evocative photographs.

  12. August 21, 2014

    A truly inspiring article, with lots of good pictures of one of the most wonderful things in the world: books! We now want to visit our own little library.

  13. August 22, 2014

    Tu-whit tu-whoo
    I look out the window
    Oooh what a lovely view!
    If I look down I don’t want to fall
    I feel so small
    All those lovely books in the great big hall
    I wish I could read them all
    Tu-whit tu-whoo

  14. Anthony permalink
    December 3, 2014

    Lovely pictures – they really capture some of the unique atmosphere of the place. I have been a member of several years, and one of the greatest joys is getting lost in the stacks and finding all manner of books you had never gone looking for in the first place.

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