I follow various book sites on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter and one thing I notice is the frequency that people post pictures of fantastic libraries, both institutional and personal, or sometimes of bookstores that look like libraries with shelves and shelves of books and comfy nooks and crannies with overstuffed chairs in abundance.
I have two hunches of why we love such images. I’d love to know what others think.
One is that such places represent a place of safety or refuge in a world that can at times feel scary. Maybe this is just me. I was in a seminar where we were asked to imagine a safe space. The image that came to mind was a book-lined room, with lots of old, leather-bound volumes, a fireplace with a good fire burning, comfortable leather chairs and good lighting, a stand at my side where I could place a mug of something warm, and reading tables or a reading desk for more serious work, looking out on a woodland or mountain vista.
So much for my fantasy life! But wouldn’t you love to spend time in a room like that? Maybe if you are a bibliophile, you’ve tried to create, with your means hopefully, a room like that. Yet the funny thing is, that all I need really is the book! I can be in an airline waiting area in a major airport with a cup of Starbucks and a book or my Kindle, and I’m in that place.
My other hunch is that these spaces represent something of our aspirations as readers. Sitting in a university reading room studying (or pretending to) a challenging work makes me feel like a scholar, or perhaps a bit wiser, whether it is really so or not! Sitting in a place where we have access to the best of what human beings have thought or written encourages us in the hope that we might gain some of that knowledge.
I’ve observed that some of my favorite bookstores try, within their means and their space, to create this feel. They allow us to slow down, to savor being around all these books. They aren’t just warehousing books. They are welcoming those who read them. I’ve found others, particularly those selling used books that simply pack as many books in as possible. There’s no place to sit to skim a book or read a chapter to see if it is what you are looking for. I’ve found some great books in these places but they aren’t places where I want to linger. That can be mitigated somewhat by a friendly bookseller who is appropriately helpful and enjoys talking about books.
Maybe another word for all of this is that these places, whether mental images or real places, represent places of retreat. They are places where we come away and have the safety to reflect and be renewed. At one time, we might have turned more to religious places, and some of us still do. (I’ve found some of the best retreat centers even have spaces like this!). It makes me wonder whether such imagery, and the real places that approximate this, as good as they are, point us to something more, just as the books we read often do.