for the love of old libraries

by

Raise your hand if you, too, LOVE a good book about books and fellow bookish people.

 

I recently finished reading just such a book: The Lions of Fifth Avenue (by Fiona Davis), which mostly takes place inside the main branch of the New York Public Library.

 

 

It’s a lovely book, featuring two mysteries; independent, bookish women over multiple generations; and the library. And yes, the library itself, with its ornate decorative architecture, gleaming marble, and hidden stairways, is practically a character in its own right.

 

While I’ve never been inside the main branch of the New York Public Library (we only said hello to the lions as we walked by on our first-ever visit to Manhattan last year), the strong sense of place in this book reminds me of another venerable old library I visited for the first time about a year ago …

revisiting old friends …

 

Last September, we were in Washington, DC, for a few days and, while my husband did his work and attended his meetings, I ventured out into the brutal heat and humidity, and on to the Metro, to revisit some of my favorite haunts and to find a couple of new favorites as well.

 

Those few days were the first time I’d been back in DC in about twenty years, after having lived in the area for a decade. A whole lot had changed in the interim, of course, but some things hadn’t: the city is still eminently walkable; the Metro still looks, smells, and sounds exactly as I remember it; and my favorite cool-on-a-hot-day museum (the National Gallery of Art’s West Building) and its quiet, comfy sitting area — perfect for reading — felt so familiar that it was as though I’d never been away.

 

 

 

and finding a new-to-me bookstore …

 

The day before, I’d ventured to Capitol Hill to seek out the East City Bookshop. It’s in what is basically the basement, with high sunny windows and the entrance below street level — which makes it a bit of a challenge to find. But it was so worth the lengthy search.

 

 

They carry a wide selection of new books on two floors, and their staff is knowledgeable, helpful, and really focused on community involvement. I highly recommend a visit if you find yourself in DC.

 

plus a magnificent old library …

 

And what else should a bookish person do while on Capitol Hill? Why, visit the main building of the Library of Congress, of course. Somehow I’d never seen the facade, let alone stepped inside, during the entire decade I’d lived in the area.

 

The facade is typical DC monument architecture: massive, solid, lots of columns and a few ornate details, and a huge staircase to what I assume should be the main entrance. The (current) visitors’ entrance — on the ground floor, tucked under the main staircase — is completely uninspiring.

 

But after navigating the entrance, I turned a corner and wandered into this …

 

 

 

I’ll admit: I was so enthralled with the library’s interior that I didn’t bother with any of the special exhibits, and I never saw a single book. All I wanted to do was admire the building itself, and photograph the hallways, the ceilings, the floors, the magnificent reading room.

 

It’s an enormous shrine to books and learning, and well worth a visit.

 

 

It’s occurred to me that — to my bookish mind, at any rate — some of the best tourist destinations we’ve visited in our travels over the past few years have been magnificent old libraries.

 

We already have a Favorite Bookstores page here on the website, of course, but (for your viewing pleasure and to offer a bit of inspiration for bookish travel) I’ve added a Favorite Libraries page as well.

Tell me: What are some of your favorite old libraries?

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Welcome to the online home of The Novel Cat, where reading, relaxing, and snuggling with cats are a way of life. I’m Jennifer, and I help former and aspiring readers maximize life’s simple pleasures — like the joy of savoring a good book — by helping them create quiet spaces (both mental and physical) inspired by the habits of cats, who are masters at finding joy in life’s small details.

“The only important thing in a book is the meaning it has for you.”

W. Somerset Maugham

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

Cicero

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.”

Marcel Proust

“Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and was suddenly at peace.”

Helene Hanff

“What a happy woman I am, living in a garden, with books … birds, and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them!”

Elizabeth von Arnim

“A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.”

Neil Gaiman

“The art of reading is … an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us; when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“When I … looked round at the familiar bookshelves, and could hear no sounds but sounds of peace, and knew that here I might read or dream or idle exactly as I chose with never a creature to disturb me, how grateful I felt to the kindly Fate that has brought me here and given me a heart to understand my own blessedness.”

Elizabeth von Arnim