August 18, 2016

'Best of all, there were books. ...'

... Although it didn't take rain to get us reading in the Big House (in fact, reading inside on a sunny day gave us a deliciously guilty feeling), on an overcast afternoon people would be curled up with a book in almost every bedroom, with three or four of us draped over the sofas in the living room, physically proximate yet in different worlds.
      Summer reading is different. There's no agenda, nothing assigned, nothing mandatory. One reads at one's own pace -- a few pages now and then, or a sudden all-day binge. Summer house libraries are a hodgepodge. Their contents tend to arrive as haphazardly as flotsam washing ashore. Some are refugees from winter homes; others are house presents; others are brought by visitors and abandoned. One doesn't weed out summer house libraries as easily as one does a winter collection; the books belong to a larger number of people, no one of whom can be entrusted with the responsibility. ... 'Summer libraries are like trifle,' Aunt Ellen once observed. 'They're in layers.' ...
      The Big House had no one room set aside as a library, but thirteen rooms had a least a shelf's worth of books. Every bedroom and hallway had its own cache. (The only bookless rooms were the bathrooms, a policy in keeping with the WASP trait of concentrating on the business at hand.) I don't believe anyone has ever formally sorted the books in the Big House, but over the years, volumes of a loosely similar nature tended to settle in certain places, and when I was a child I knew where to turn, depending on my mood.
      For a visual journey through the sweep of English literature, there was the mission oak hutch opposite the living room fireplace, where my great-grandmother's sets of nineteenth-century novelists, arrayed on the shelves, composed a kind of colorful flag:  a short maroon stripe of Thackeray above the long carmine stripe of Trollope above the sea green stripe of Bronte above the olive and gold stripe of Dickens. ... For sheer splendor, there was the bookcase near the dining room fireplace, which held the Life Nature Library and back issues of Horizon. For Francophiles, there was the Yellow Room, stocked with travel guides and French novels, many of them dating from Aunt Sandy's college years. For escapist fare, there was the kitchen wing, whose narrow second-floor hallway was lined with W.H. Hudson, Angela Thirkell, and other authors whose books my great-grandmother deemed worth keeping but not worth keeping on the first floor ...
      Within this rough order, there was delicious disorder. The hallmark of a summer house library is serendipity. Foraging a summer house for books is like beachcombing, in which a small stretch of shorelines may yield a mermaid's purse, a rusty fishing lure, a claw from a boiled lobster, an empty milk carton. A guest staying in Grandma's Dressing Room will find, on a single shelf, a collection of speeches by Oliver Wendell Holmes; Fairies Afield by Mrs. Molesworth, a handbook on sprites and pixies, as straight as guide to wading birds or salamanders, published in 1911; Paris Through an Attic*, by A. Herbage Edwards, the memoir of a young married couple living abroad at the turn of the twentieth century; a biography of Dag Hammarskjold. A slender edition of Housman's poetry bumps up against huge bound volumes of Punch dating to the 1850s ...
      In summer houses, one reads books one might never otherwise read, because one would never come across them in an alphabetized, Dewey-decimalized library. ... In a summer house one doesn't want a librarian's organizing hand. When I was twelve, I spent several days sorting the books on the third floor, filing them neatly on the shelves I labeled 'Poetry,' 'Biography,' 'Classics,' 'Essays,' and so on. But when I had finished, I felt that mix of awe and regret I felt on family trips to the barbershop as I watched, in the mirror, the barber dampen, comb and cut my unruly hair into submission.

from The Big House:  A century in the life of an 
American summer home, by George Howe Colt

*Already found at the library. :)

{The painting is Young Boy Reading, by Henri Lebasque, found here.}


JoAnn said...

Such a wonderful book! You've highlighted one of my favorite passages :)

Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock said...

Wonderful - you might have just sold a copy!