Red-Hot Library Lust

Brian Taylor

February 16, 2007

I have written several columns about my love for books and libraries, but now it is time for me to come out of the closet, as it were, and confess that I have become a connoisseur of library porn.

I know it's wrong. I know it makes me less contented with my small college library and its modest collection of ordinary, useful books for undergraduates. And it makes me want to abandon my wholesome life in the rural Midwest to live in some big city like Boston or New York, where I can indulge my bookish desires without restraint or public scrutiny.

But I have been buying library porn for a long time now. It started 15 years ago in the back of a bookseller's stall, where I picked up a shopworn copy of Treasures of the New York Public Library (Abrams, 1988). It was a beautiful coffee-table book with photos of the library's most notable holdings and, more important, a few tantalizing pictures of the library itself, showing the exquisite architectural details of the public catalog room.

The pleasure of Treasures led me to order The Smithsonian Book of Books by Michael Olmert (Smithsonian, 1992). Mostly, it contained pictures of the museum's finer holdings, such as the Kelmscott Press edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896), complete with its own quartersawn oak cabinet handmade by William Morris. Unfortunately, the Book of Books contained scarcely any images of the rooms that contained those treasures: no images of the inner sanctums where the rarest of incunabula are stored, not even a black-and-white picture of the marble-lined entry hall that usually serves as the most public space of any major library. I was, needless to say, deflated.

Librarians are exhibitionists when it comes to books, but, it seems, they have long been inhibited by some obscure ethic of modesty when it comes to exposing themselves to architectural photographers. They want to be admired for their minds rather than their bodies.

That scarcity of good library porn was a matter of small consequence when I lived on the East Coast, where I could gain access to the real thing on a regular basis. But my frustration has mounted in the last seven years, since I am faithfully married to my home institution, a Midwestern liberal-arts college that regards books as utilitarian objects: for reading and study only, not for frivolous, unproductive tactile and olfactory pleasures. No caressing of spines or inhaling the aroma of decaying leather around here, thank you very much.

Everything in our library is clean and well-lighted, all newly enameled metal shelving and crisply veneered tabletops, and most of the older books are tightly bound in chaste, institutional buckram. It's a good college library, one of the best, but, every now and then, the obsessive library devotee -- jaded by deep experience with great university libraries -- needs something, shall we say, more complex.

I long for labyrinthine libraries in which books disappear for decades and then suddenly surface like logs breaking loose from the murky bottom of a Scottish loch. I long to wander through subterranean vaults, plucking tomes, topped by a mat of dust (the remains of old professors, perhaps), that have not been read in 200 years of library residency: wallflowers waiting for me to choose them and use them as I please. But I am only able to indulge those pleasures on the occasional business trip: attending a meeting, speaking at a conference, but really waiting for the chance to sneak away to slake my bibliophilic thirst, not vicariously, but through direct physical contact with the real thing.

Alas, such excursions can only occur once or twice a year. For the rest of the time, I am compelled to keep my eyes open for the best new books about libraries. Most of those books -- about library design and architecture -- are no more satisfying to me than a medical textbook would be to Alexander Portnoy. But I am happy to report that, in the last few years, I think I have finally found exactly what I am looking for in the form of two gorgeous books: The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World (Abrams, 2003), with photographs by Guillaume de Laubier, and Libraries (Thames & Hudson, 2005), with photographs by Candida H&oumlaut;fer.

The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World is a luxurious book that showcases its subject with the relish of a fellow aficionado. Guillaume de Laubier knows what I want, and he gives it to me, over and over again. The photographs are beautifully composed, presenting sweeping vistas of large interiors (including, in several cases, gatefold panoramas of the most exquisite reading rooms I have ever seen), along with close-ups of the more interesting and attractive details: gilded putti, sculpted bronzes, leaded glass, ormolu-mounted armchairs equipped with lecterns, the patina of oak reading tables that have been in constant use for two centuries.

For each library, Jacques Bosser (translated by Laurel Hirsch) provides a few pages of historical and architectural context. No doubt about it, this book will satisfy the most experienced habitué of the grandest libraries.

The Most Beautiful Libraries gives some attention to the United States -- including the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Boston Athenaeum -- but its obsessive focus is aimed at the great, imperial libraries of Europe: enormous, baroque structures that seem more like reliquary caskets than repositories for books.

They are, of course, gorgeous buildings but to me they seem almost grotesque, too much like Counter-Reformation cathedrals -- bristling with fragile, serpentine curlicues -- than the sturdy, rectilinear, oak-paneled libraries that I admire for their ability to bear hard use and age well. Decadence has its allure, but, in the end, I will eschew the powdered courtesan of Versailles to embrace the rosy-cheeked provincial milkmaid.

Perhaps that is an American affectation, but, to my taste, the most beautiful library in de Laubier's book is the one at Trinity College in Dublin, home of the "Book of Kells." I particularly admire the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Long Room; it recalls Hrothgar's mead hall with busts -- the effigies of writers, philosophers, and statesmen -- standing sentinel by each alcove like trusty thanes guarding the knowledge contained on oak shelves that must stand 15 feet tall, reachable only by ascending the tread-worn library ladders.

Founded in 1601, the Trinity College Library is simultaneously a museum, a church, and a functional repository for some 176,000 books. It confers a solemn dignity on the intellectual enterprise, asking the student to aspire to join the long procession of heroic minds who have stocked the shelves with so many leather-bound volumes. Trinity preserves the Golden Age of the Library, when the shelves first began to overflow, and when there was confidence that the codex was a technology that could last forever.

Candida Höfer's Libraries is another sumptuous book that contains many beautiful photographs of some of the greatest libraries in the Western world. But Höfer's photographs are more aesthetic than documentary. Libraries are a medium for conveying Höfer's themes of emptiness and stillness, a minimalist style applied to maximalist interiors. Because there are usually no people in Höfer's photographs, the libraries seem extracted from time.

Libraries showcases several jewel boxes, like Vienna's Öesterreichische Nationalbibliothek, which resembles a book-lined Venetian basilica. I was rendered speechless by the practically unknown Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, in Rio de Janeiro, which is surely the most spectacular library on earth. One must see it to believe it is not some elaborate computer-generated fantasy.

Höfer does not limit herself to the grand. She includes many mundane images, some of them nearly inexplicable, such as a pair of photographs of red and green binders from the Witt Library in London. Early in the book, there is a photograph of a dreadful, concrete room at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. As one of the few images showing people, perhaps it is meant to convey the ugliness of so much contemporary library architecture: cheap, ephemeral, and bookless.

As you advance through Libraries, you begin to notice how books are often absent from the photographs, replaced by banks of computers. In some libraries, the shelves are weirdly vacant, as if all the books have been raptured out of the material world into the realm of pure essences: the book as idea, now abandoned. Höfer's images of modern libraries often seem antiseptic and soulless, as if they were sets for a Stanley Kubrick film

It may be that Höfer's sublime work of library erotica is, in the end, a memento mori. Her book contains an ominous image of the Säechsische Landesbibliothek in Dresden. It shows a large room, a concrete bunker, filled with row upon row of black mainframes. It is reminiscent of Donald Judd's minimalist art installation of 100 aluminum boxes in a former artillery shed in Marfa, Texas.

That is the inevitable future: libraries without books, and the presence of that image makes sense of the inclusion of so many other photographs of empty shelves. Gorgeous as some of the libraries are, Höfer reminds us that these places are on the verge of transformation and extinction. In many ways, Libraries recalls narratives like Thomas Cole's series of paintings, The Course of Empire (1833-36). It was a good run for printed books -- some 500 years, and that's more than can be said of most technologies.

The library -- perhaps like the human body -- must be purged of its decadent physicality and relocated into the realm of pure intellect, pure information, pure rationality, eternally updated, preserved as an endless stream of instantaneous electronic data. In that sense, behind the arousal of what I jokingly call "library porn," there is a latent sadness, an awareness that everything decays and is replaced by something new and unfamiliar.

It gives a greater urgency to one's lust to live more fully in one's historical moment before it becomes part of the museum of desires that people no longer feel or understand. In 20 years, college students will regard books the way they now regard 33 RPM records: a quaint technology, warmer perhaps, but ultimately the province of musty antiquarians.

When that day comes, I suppose I'll be one of those dirty old men, white-bearded like Whitman, poking around in the stacks of derelict libraries, caressing the spines, perusing the neglected volumes, and contemplating how his desire for books only increases with age.


Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at