Library Envy

Arriving at a party in a big new house north of the city a while back, I was invited to stash my belongings in the library. It was a large, comfortable room with beautiful built-in bookshelves lining the walls. Having spent way too much of my adult life trying to find ample shelf space for the books that just seem to show up at my house, like stray kittens, I was more than impressed. I admired the design, the craftsmanship, the capacity.

That was pretty easy to do, since there were no books obstructing the view of the shelving details. One shelf held four videos, and that was it. There were yards and yards of empty shelves.

I was incredulous. How could you avoid an accumulation of books, however small, unless you are so disciplined that you read a book and immediately give it away – or don’t read at all, which is far too depressing even to consider. How could you let all that great shelf space go to waste?

I was also unbecomingly jealous, having always wanted a house with a real library, an entire room dedicated to books, a place where books and the reading of books were the unabashed focal point and all other uses were secondary.

Why should these folks, nice as they were, get to have an unused room officially designated as a library, while I have to make do with a motley collection of bookcases and bookshelves and book stacks crowding rooms designed for other purposes?

A recent AP story, quoting a spokesman from the National Association of Home Builders, reported that Americans are buying bigger and bigger homes for smaller and smaller families. Homebuyers, especially those in the suburbs, seem to be intrigued by the lifestyle possibilities afforded by more and more space, and they like having rooms that are designed for very specific uses – offices, media rooms, exercise rooms.

Other trends, particularly in urban areas, point toward consolidation and downsizing reflected in smaller residences and more efficient use of space. So you can pretty much count on finding what you need wherever you need it.

Library envy aside, I’m intrigued by changes in housing styles and trends and the way rooms are used – or not used (your mom’s living room, your grandmother’s parlor) and especially what rooms are called. Some of the changes in nomenclature reflect changes in the way people live, with TV rooms morphing into media rooms.

Some are marketing ploys that borrow names from distant places and times, so you end up with keeping rooms and conservatories in contemporary houses. Some names are satisfyingly prosaic – like the all-purpose bonus room.

Some names reflect the way we live; some are more aspirational, reflecting the way we’d like to live.

In my own futile quest for household perfection, I’ve waffled in my desire to have a breakfast room, a formal dining room, a playroom, a game room, even an inglenook. (I’m not sure exactly what that is; I just like the way it sounds.) But I have been steadfast in coveting a library.

Since my husband and I are empty nesters, I could probably find a room to devote entirely to books if I put my mind to it. But I have come to the realization that our solid, sturdy brick ranch house, built in the 1950s, would simply not accommodate a library. Nobody built libraries for that kind of house. They built dens – most, like ours, with frightening knotty-pine paneling. And no matter how many coats of paint we cover the paneling with (it took three) and how many bookshelves we bring in (one built-in, two freestanding), it will always be a den, never a library.

Nor could that particular space ever be a media room, regardless of how much electronic equipment we decided to add. It’s not even likely to make the grade as a family room, since the house predates that particular term by a decade or so. Nonetheless, the den is my favorite room in the house. It’s comfortable and friendly – and a pleasant place to read.

Truthfully, I’m not sure I’m even library-owner material. I’d have a hard time keeping a straight face inviting guests to step into the library. For what? A spot of sherry? A nice little chat while we wait for the butler to announce dinner? The room of my dreams is probably better left to characters in British mystery novels – of which of I have dozens, all in need of shelf space.

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