Books are like bricks: substantial hand-sized building blocks to build a room. They are also like wallpaper, a decorative device in their own right. Its thorns and designs, fonts and colors are a vocabulary of shapes of infinite variety.
In closing, we spend more time with books. We are rearranging them, looking at them in a way we didn’t have before and seeing them as a resource rather than a load that accumulates dust and consumes a lot of space. How can we create a space to immerse ourselves in them? How do we incorporate them into home architecture?
Shelves can be surprisingly intimate portraits of our desires, failures, weaknesses, and claims. They form an autobiographical wall of changing interests, tastes, and means: cheap paperbacks and the pretentious French philosophy of youth; the specialized and academic literature you bought because you thought you should read it (and it still knowingly blinks from your negligence); graphic novels, coffee table tomes, and useless gifts from people who might still visit.
Even a small shelf will give away something. Biographies or novels? Critical theory or pop writing? Architecture books and art monographs, or thrillers with gold lettering and military history? Through our books we can be read.
In terms of interiors, books seem to come and go in style, although they never completely disappear. In English country houses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the library was essential, a class indicator and a showroom for books that had both financial and intellectual value.
It is a tradition that has survived in curious places: the boutique hotel, the cruise ship, and the houses of the wealthy, where it is often used as a way to use the ridiculous number of rooms in an oversized house. You will never find a luxury apartment without a selection of artistically unread coffee table books. They have remained an indispensable element in an image of luxury life.
Most people don’t have one, but the home library is so familiar to us that it conjures up an image; a tall room with ceiling-mounted built-in bookshelves, with stairs, perhaps a gallery, a large, solid wooden table for new acquisitions, and a pair of worn wingback chairs. That distinctive, dry, delicious smell of skin, old paper, books, and dust.
The wonderful thing, of course, is that we can read anywhere, even if we don’t live in a big country house (kids and homework allow it). In bed, in the garden, on the balcony or on the ceiling, in the bathtub or in the sink, even on the floor of an unfurnished house.
Books can be arranged anywhere: stacked or stacked, arranged in a row on a counter, on the steps or placed on a table. There’s even a particularly British (I think) custom of the bathroom library, a selection of humor and light reading that could encompass Private eye,cartoon collections, Verbigracia comics and graphic novels. And why not?
When books first became a mass market phenomenon in the 18th century, the act of reading required following the light. Furniture was lightweight, so small chairs and tables could be moved and positioned closer to the windows when the sunlight faded.
The introduction of electric and gas light opened the entire interior and all day and night until reading, but in the early 19th century, houses in the Arts & Crafts style still featured compartment windows with padded seats, clearly out of the way to read.
English architect MH Baillie Scott filled houses with these seats (Blackwell in the Lake District has the best). CFA Voysey filled its curved bays at Broad Leys, also in the Lake District, with curved seats, while Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House offers the most beautiful reading bay I know.
Frank Lloyd Wright also carved the window seats and the complex interlocking geometries of Adolf Loos’s Muller House in Prague (1929-30) sculpted intimate spaces with cubic volume.
As modernism took hold, the spaces dedicated to reading and retreat decreased, but were incorporated into the attitudes of the furniture. The long chair by Marcel Breuer, the LC4 chair by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand and the Eames chair carry with them the comfort of sitting with a book, perhaps falling asleep.
Architects and interior designers still create dedicated reading spaces, often corners under staircases, window seats, or built into the depths of walls. But the most wonderful thing about a reading space is that it doesn’t have to be designed for you, you just need to find the best place and occupy it.
Children are inventive. Hours of artificial light were reduced once more carefully than today. I remember being told to turn off the light at 9 p.m., so I convinced my mother that she couldn’t sleep without a night lamp on because she was afraid of the dark. Which was not, but it meant I could continue reading. Other children were more deceptive, reading in the light of the torches under the covers.
Children don’t have many opportunities to control their surroundings, but creating a place to read is one of them. A shed can work, or the garden, even the front door if it is where the sun is.
And why stop in a space? Are certain books better read in specific places? Should some books be read in the sunlight? Does non-fiction require a different space than in novels?
Much of my best reading is done outside the home. Trains are the best, but hotels rank second, and when he was younger, he seemed to spend a lot of time in the laundromat, which, with its fogged-up windows, worked well in winter.
Milan Kundera runs in my head with a soundtrack of noisy dryers; Raymond Chandler jumps along with trains to Manchester; Italo Calvino with a long convalescence in bed (always the best place to read until you reach a certain age and find eyelids drooping eerily fast).
Should we read as opposed to where we are? Should we read Kafka in the garden, romance in the kitchen, and thrillers in bed? Many of us read in the bathroom, what would be better there?
We may not remember what we read, but the steam-crumpled pages will remind us, just like the books we read on the beach. I have books still sandy with sand, others with coffee rings reminiscent of languid coffees.
And if it can affect how you read where you are, does it work the other way around? Can our experience of reading a particular work affect how we see space? Perhaps it is a conversation between the room and the book, in which each one leaves its mark on the other.
We absorb what we read and become us, and the books we collect build the spaces we inhabit, both physically and metaphorically. You may like to be surrounded by books while reading or not; Sometimes those growing stacks look too intimidating and distract you with the weight of everything that hasn’t been read yet.
Then there is separation. We can designate a space as a library or reading room or book corner and we can make ourselves a study full of books or a home office, but we should not confuse one with the other.
I often read in my book-filled study because it is light and quiet, but it is not, despite what you might tell me, a library. It’s my workplace and the desk and laptop are always there, lurking reminders of commitments and deadlines. Work pollutes a place, leaves a residue of guilt and to-do lists. You may be able to read there but not relax.
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No rules. The best place to read is where it is best to read. Designers can designate and architects can plan, but you might end up slumped in an old chair in the corner or lying on the bed leaning on a pile of pillows or on the threshold with a rare ray of sunshine.
It is an act of colonization, closely linked to the user, not the designer. Try to read everywhere, in every unlikely corner, on every sofa, chair, and every window, and see what works.
This lockout moment may be unique, perhaps the longest time you will have without dinners or work functions to attend. Don’t waste long hours on crowded trains, where even opening a book is an affront to other passengers. We know that time is the most precious resource.
Sure, we should spend a portion reading those great books that are otherwise too heavy or discouraging. Find your perfect reading spot and enjoy. Then you will finally have inhabited your house.
Writers on how they live with books.
The library at night by Alberto Manguel
Starting with a poetic description of his own library in a converted barn in France, Manguel travels through the history of libraries and books, with amusements to Jorge Luis Borges (the blind author whom he used to read as a child), banned the books and books of the imagination. its A reading story it’s completely enlightening too.
Unpacking my library by Walter Benjamin
“I am unpacking my library. Yes I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, they have not yet been touched by the slight boredom of order. “Benjamin’s essay covers the excitement of unpacking books, the potential for reading, and the memories that accompany each volume. He writes about being surrounded from his books almost like at a party with old friends.
Brief notes on art and how to organize books by Georges Perec
As a sign of the impossibility, and perhaps even the undesirability, of complete order on the shelves, Perec’s light and witty take includes a list of places where he can put books when he runs out of shelf space.
Too strong a loneliness by Bohumil Hrabal
Hanta can’t bear to drop the books he’s supposed to be compacting at work at a waste paper plant, some of them samizdat, some forbidden foreign texts, so he saves them, reads them and builds an interior, a cave of paper and words, a place that becomes him. A brilliant, surreal and heartbreaking novel about the impossibility of suppressing or eliminating literature.
Babel’s library by Jorge Luis Borges
A very short history that surely has become the most cited and referred text about the nature of libraries. It is not a home, but how the library aims at integrity, making it inseparable from the universe itself. Borges’ heaven, his oblivion, is, of course, an endless storehouse of books. Disturbing and a little disturbing.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT architecture critic
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