The London Library
February 28, 2012 | by Orlando Whitfield
Once a month or so when I was a small boy, my father and I would spend a Saturday morning together in the St. James’s area of London, later meeting my mother and sister for lunch at a restaurant close by. The routine, which never varied and whose endpoint was always the same, started with a haircut at a Turkish barber’s above a clothes shop on a busy shopping street.
Descending into the world again, with newly cut hair, the facades of Jermyn Street—brassy, glazed, filled with the refined and adult promise of brogues, horn-handled hairbrushes, and silk pajamas—stretched left and right before us. Around the corner, through a short flurry of alleys, we came to St. James’s Square: home, in the northwest corner, to our destination, the London Library.
The library building is tall and slim, squashed into the corner between a stately townhouse and the Cypriot Embassy. My first impression of the place was of disjunction; inside and outside do not match up. In a third-story window, an owl perches on the sill (further inspection reveals it to be a decoy). In the stacks, through the latticed metal walkways, as in Borges’s The Library of Babel, “you can see the upper and lower floors, endlessly.” In the fifteen miles of shelving, desks appear at random, with or without a corresponding chair; members and librarians flit past, fragmented faces visible through rows of books. My father and I never stayed long, fifteen minutes or so at most. We returned his books to the librarians, picking up any that had been set aside, and then flung ourselves like hunters into the warren of the stacks.
I joined the library for myself when I was about eighteen and soon the place became an addiction, an obsession. In the summer before university, when many of my friends were embracing their new freedom on beaches or riding trains across Europe, I explored those corridors, picking out books with titles like The West of Buffalo Bill, and Ten months among the tents of the Tuski: with incidents of an Arctic boat expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, as far as the Mackenzie River, and Cape Bathurst. I chose at random. I found, and reveled in, shelving sections like “S. Devil &c.,” “S. Fingerprints,” “H. Exhumation,” “T. Hints for Travellers,” “S. Flower Arrangement,” and my favorite, “S. Fools.”
I would get up early, eat breakfast in the square, and arrive at the library when it opened. I ate lunch in the square when the weather was good, in the members’ room when it was bad; I smoked cigarettes on the embassy steps; in the evenings, I drank at the Red Lion on Duke of York Street around the corner (a pub with an interior so ornate—cut mirrors and drunken, drooping gargoyles—that the architectural historian Iain Nairn said that were he forced to choose, it would be the only building in London he would save). On Sundays, when the library was shut, I was listless. Days among my own books and those of my parents felt inadequate, less nourishing; I longed for Monday to arrive and for my explorations to begin again.
Since its origins, the London Library’s acquisition brief has been fervid and wide-ranging, and its membership both illustrious and diverse. Started by Thomas Carlyle in 1841—he was peeved at not being able to borrow books from the British Library—it has grown into the largest private lending library in the world. Its members have included Dickens, T. S. Eliot (who was once the library’s president), Isaiah Berlin, Thackeray, and Rebecca West.
The one million books in the library are available to all members at all times. A friend once borrowed Hobbes’s Leviathan, only to realize that he’d taken home a first edition; there is a first-edition copy of Portrait of a Lady that contains typos (typos!); there is reputedly a dictionary whose F section bears the inky fingerprints of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, which they left when looking up naughty words. If you borrow an old book from the library, you may go to bed with a volume that Dickens once read by candle light in Doughty Street, or that Eliot read as he walked over the London Bridge.
The library is a place of safety for the bibliophile, and a cooling refuge for the city-heated mind. The joy of the place is not only the books, however, but also the cast of characters. The dusty fellow next to you might be a proto Nobel-winning author (as, years ago, was Elias Canetti, who spent many unrecognized years in the library before his call to Stockholm), and the almost certain knowledge that the person in the next carrel cares deeply about words and ideas and, best of all, has a book to tell you about, in a whisper.
As an editor now, I get passed books by colleagues, crazies, and agents. People seldom whisper about books in publishing, but I had started to hear about an electrifying collection of essays by someone referred to as “J. J.” I affected a knowing air, but soon forgot. Then, a few months ago, I read a rash of supremely good reviews for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. Click.
The book is, at the time of writing, not yet published in the UK and was not in the library’s collection. In instances such as these, members have recourse to two options: suggestion cards and the Members’ Comment Book (itself a riveting page by page discussion, by older members, of younger members’ mobile phone use—and sundry appeals for the return of stolen umbrellas). I opted for the suggestion card.
Time passed. I pestered the Librarian by e-mail. I waited. Eventually I received an e-mail: Pulphead was ready for reading and waiting for me.
The book was small and brown, with thick boards. Farrar, Straus and Giroux had published Pulphead in paperback. However, to ensure longevity, the London Library strips and rebinds any paperbacks it acquires: paperbacks morph into hardbacks like water into wine. On the spine of the book, the title and the author’s name and the date of publication were embossed in sans serif, gold letters. On the front, centered at the top of the board was a green bookplate bearing the name and address of the library. Inside, on the reverse of the front cover, were stuck some extracts from the library’s rules. Holding the book in my hand, I appreciated its weight, the balance that could be achieved in the palm were the thumb to be rightly positioned in the gully of the pages. It fit in my coat pocket.
It was, I realized, the only hardback of Pulphead in the world; it was as unique as the shelves that contain it, and as instantly enrapturing as I found the library during my boyhood visits.
Orlando Whitfield is a writer and editor living in London. He tweets as @o_whitfield.