A library that the Internet never tires of
On the first Tuesday of the year, author and political activist Don Winslow tweeted a photo of an avid reader’s dream library. Bathed in the buttery glow of three table lamps, nearly every surface in the room is covered in books. There are books on the tables, books stacked on mahogany ladders, and books on top of even more books lined up on the shelves in the room. “I hope you see the beauty in what I do,” Winslow wrote in the tweet, which was acknowledged with 32,800 hearts.
If you spend enough time in the literary corners of Twitter, this image might look familiar. It increases again almost every year and the library has been awarded over the years to authors such as Umberto Eco and buildings in Italy and Prague. As with other images featuring beautiful bookshelves, people are raving about it. Winslow’s post received 1,700 comments, including one from a Pace University professor who used the photo as a Zoom background.
“This is clearly the home of someone who loves and collects books,” Winslow said in an email via her agent, Shane Salerno. “To me, I think this photo is as beautiful as a sunset. I could spend days and days locked up in this library looking at every book. He noted there was something comforting about the image, because “it’s a room you could happily lose yourself in”.
Winslow had no idea where the photo came from. He had found it on Twitter, but couldn’t remember the name or location of the library. (Although he believed it was the personal library of a prominent author from another country.)
The library, you should know, is not in Europe. It doesn’t even exist anymore. But when it happened, it was Johns Hopkins Professor Richard Maccksey’s personal library in Baltimore. (I was his student in 2015 and interviewed him for Literary Hub in 2018.) Maccksey, who died in 2019, was a book collector, polyglot and scholar of comparative literature. At Hopkins, he founded one of the nation’s first interdisciplinary academic departments and organized the 1966 conference “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” which included the first lectures in the United States by theorists French Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Paul de Homme.
Maccksey’s book collection reached 51,000 titles, according to his son, Alan, excluding magazines and other ephemera. Ten years ago, the most valuable pieces – including first editions of ‘Moby Dick’, TS Eliot’s ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’ and works by Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley – were moved to a ‘collections’ room events” on the Hopkins campus. After Macksey’s death, a SWAT team-like group of librarians and conservationists spent three weeks scouring his book-filled 7,400-square-foot house to select 35,000 volumes to add to the libraries of the university.
Surprise finds included an 18th-century text by Rousseau with charred covers (found in the kitchen), a ‘blank’ copy of a rare 1950s exhibition catalog showing paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, posters of protests by May 1968 when students in Paris occupied the Sorbonne, a hand-drawn Christmas card by filmmaker John Waters and the original recordings by the theorists of that 1966 structuralism conference.
“For years everyone said ‘there must be recordings of these lectures.’ Well, we eventually found the recordings of those lectures. They were hidden in a cabinet behind a shelf behind a couch,” said Liz Mengel, associate director of collections and academic services for Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins. Editions of twentieth-century poets and novelists sat on a shelf in the laundry room.
After the librarians at Hopkins and nearby Loyola Notre Dame finished selecting their donations, the remaining books were taken away by a dealer, so Maccksey’s son could prepare the house for sale.
The bookcase image eschews all those details to evoke something more universal, said Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of The Aesthetics of Joy, a blog about the relationship between decor and pleasure. “We’re drawn to the image, and we come up with all kinds of stories about who it might be and what it might be because we like to tell stories,” she said. “But what really drives the attraction is much more visceral.”
Fetell Lee emphasized the sense of abundance in the photo. “There’s something about the sensory abundance of seeing a lot that gives us a little thrill,” she said. Also relevant: the “satisfying” sense of organized chaos and the awe inspired by high ceilings.
Images of books and libraries are popular on social platforms. An Instagram representative said some of the most liked posts on the platform that include the words “library” or “libraries” feature large amounts of books, a “comfortable” aesthetic or a warmer color palette.
What would Maccksey think if he knew his library had taken on a life of its own? “My father loved nothing better than to share his love of books and literature with others,” said Alan Macksey. “He would love his library to live through this photo.”
(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)
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