You know that scene in Beauty and the Beast when the Beast takes Belle to the library and flings open the drapes to reveal shelves and shelves of books? That’s why Belle is my favorite Disney princess—because she has access to such an incredible array of books. My family dragged me to visit the Biltmore Estate, the largest private residence in America, in Asheville last Christmas. Vanderbilt had a wonderful library there, complete with one of those ladders on wheels for sliding about the room, grabbing books off high shelves. In My Fair Lady, when Henry Higgins and the other guy are singing that terribly misogynist song about being “ordinary men”, they dance around Higgins’ immense library. I would imagine that the curly-twirly staircase up to the second level comes in handy for musical numbers.
Someday, when I’m a famous academic or something, I want to have a gigantic library in my house. This presumes that I will have a home large enough to accommodate a gigantic library—perhaps I’ll live in a castle like the Biltmore or the Beast’s. Of course, a humongous residence would be cool, but a packed-to-tbe-gills library in a smaller house would work, too.
There’s a house on Angela Avenue, before the Notre Dame Avenue stoplight and Eddy Street Commons, that has a room in the front corner of the house with big windows. The lights are usually on, and even when it’s dark, you can see that the room is has floor-to-ceiling shelves on every wall. The shelves are jammed full of books—stacked on top of each other, balancing precariously. I would love to know what all of those books are about. Did the owners of the home write any of them? Have they read all of them? Which ones were gifts?
Whenever I go to the used book store, I look for books with inscriptions on the flyleaf. Sometimes I’ll find a “Happy 7th Birthday! Love, Grama and Grampa” on a dinosaur picture book, but occasionally I’ll find something a little more cryptic. The books with names written inside the cover are like little mysteries. Who was Mary Ann Feltzer and why did she give away her copy of “Pride and Prejudice”?
My greatest find at the local used book store is a 1963 copy of the Good Housekeeping Cookbook. The book is a beautifully bound, greenish-blue hardback (if it had a paper book jacket, said jacket has long since disappeared) that looks like it belongs on Betty Draper’s kitchen counter. My vintage cookbook was wedged, logically, in the cooking section. When I picked it up, it sat unassumingly between a Rachael Ray paperback and a dated-looking volume on microwave cuisine. I brought home the 1963 cookbook for the low, low price of $3.99 and settled down on the couch with it.
I wanted to read that cookbook—during my in-store perusal, I discovered that the book had chapters devoted to teenage dieting, hostessing tips, and meat jellies. After spending the afternoon in 1963, I was an expert on things like marketing (that’s “going to the grocery store”, for all you modern day folks) and canning and serving dinner to my husband’s boss. I could make something normal, like a pot roast, or something weird with fish or aspic or gravy. I learned how to properly slice oranges for punch and how to arrange a lunch buffet, which is different from a breakfast buffet and a dinner buffet. I longed for a ruffled apron to wear and I guiltily, embarrassingly, kind of, sort of craved a cigarette—just to hold and look 60s-ish, not to actually smoke. For an instant, I had a peek into the Mad Men past, and I gloried in the American Studies geekiness of it.
When I grow up and I have an office or a desk or a shelf of my own, I’ll set that lovely blue cookbook out on display. I’m collecting as many of those cool, generation-transcending books as I can, because that’s how books are meant to be. Books are supposed to completely transport you to another place and time, just like my cookbook does. When I collect enough books, I’ll fill my library. Maybe I’ll add a second story with a twisty staircase or some high shelves with a rolling ladder. I’ll be sure to hang heavy curtains in the room so I can throw them open, watch the dust settle in the sunbeams, and then curl up on a chaise lounge with a hardback.