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#93 The London Library

November 22, 2011

The London Library's endless, labyrinthine, silent stacks behind the reading rooms. Practically crying out for a ghost librarian, isn't it?

“If you feel […] that well-read people are less likely to be evil, and a world full of people sitting quietly with good books in their hands is preferable to world filled with schisms and sirens and other noisy and troublesome things, then every time you enter a library you might say to yourself, ‘The world is quiet here,’ as a sort of pledge proclaiming reading to be the greater good.”
― Lemony SnicketThe Slippery Slope

The London Library is a rare and unusual thing: a private lending library, nestled behind Piccadilly in the quiet of St James’s Square. The world is certainly quiet here, in this converted townhouse which seems to stretch back impossibly far, back to stacks of ancient, untouched but well-loved volumes; some of which have been waiting 300 years for someone to ruffle their pages.

Over a million volumes live here, and almost all can be borrowed by members. The emphasis is on arts and humanities, but all manner of books can be found in its multiple converted halls and nooks. No book is ever removed from the shelves here. This means that the older books themselves have a certain air of genteel glamour, as well as eccentricity: we saw volumes concerning The Prolongation of Life, and the 19th Century’s best guide to kite flying. It’s possible that the very volume you’re leafing through might have been used by Dickens or George Eliot in their research, since they and many other famous writers have been members through the years.

Membership to the London Library will set you back £435 a year – seems extravagant, but this is less than a London gym will cost you. The people inside are the kind of folk who you’d expect to have ‘gone private’ on their literature borrowing. Alongside the earnest, straggle-haired novelists and solemn researchers, there are a lot of folk who look too young to be able to afford to be there: long-faced upper-class kids who have presumably been given the privilege of joining. Yes, we’re jealous. (One lofty, pullovered aristo youth was so posh, he was utterly oblivious to the fact he was standing in the middle of our guided tour, and had to be led away by kindly librarians.)

Nevertheless, membership of the London Library would be an amazing thing. It feels like somewhere out of one of its own novels – if it didn’t exist, then Mark Z. Danielewski or Umberto Eco would have had to invent this ever-so-slightly impossible place.

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