Nooks for books can be created anywhere in the home

Books are like bricks: substantial, hand-sized building blocks for constructing a room. They are also like wallpaper, a decorative device in their own right. Their spines and designs, fonts and colours are a vocabulary of form of infinite variety.
In lockdown, we are spending more time with books. We are rearranging them, looking at them in a way we had not before and seeing them as a resource rather than a dust-gathering, space-consuming burden. How can we carve out a space for immersing ourselves in them? How do we embed them into the architecture of home?
Shelves can be surprisingly intimate portraits of our desires, failures, weaknesses and pretensions. They form an autobiographical wall of changing interests, tastes and means: the cheap paperbacks and pretentious French philosophy of youth; the specialist and academic literature you bought because you thought you ought to read it (and which still winks knowingly at your neglect); the graphic novels, coffee-table tomes and unhelpful gifts from people who might yet visit.
Even a small shelf will give something away. Biographies or novels? Critical theory or pop writing? Architecture books and art monographs, or thrillers with gold letters and military history? Through our books we can ourselves be read.
In terms of interiors, books seem to drift in and out of fashion, though they never disappear entirely. In the English country houses of the 18th and 19th centuries, the library was essential, an indicator of class and a showroom of books which had both a financial and an intellectual value.
The Book Room, Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire (John Soane, 1806) © NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel
It is a tradition that has survived in curious places: the boutique hotel, the cruise ship and the homes of the wealthy, where it is often employed as a way of using up the ridiculous number of rooms in a too-big house. You will never find a top-end show apartment without a selection of artily unread coffee-table books. They have remained an indispensable element in an image of luxury living.
In lockdown we are seeing books as a resource rather than a dust-gathering, space-consuming burden
Most people do not have one, yet the house library is familiar enough to us that it conjures an image; a tall room with built-in bookshelves reaching to the ceiling, with ladders, perhaps a gallery, a big, solid, wood table for laying out new acquisitions and a couple of well-worn wing-backed chairs. That distinctive, dry and delicious smell of hide, old paper, books and dust.
The wonderful thing, of course, is that we can read anywhere, even if we do not live in a grand country house (children and chores allowing). In bed, in the garden, on the balcony or the roof, in the bath or on the lavatory, even on the floor of an as yet-unfurnished house.
Books themselves can be accommodated anywhere: stacked or piled, set out in a row on a countertop, on the steps or laid out on a table. There is even a peculiarly British (I think) custom of the lavatory library, a selection of humour and light reading that might span Private Eye,cartoon collections, Viz comics and graphic novels. And why not?
A window seat at Blackwell (MH Baillie Scott, 1898-1900) in the English Lake District © Clive Boursnell
When books first became a mass-market phenomenon in the 18th century, the act of reading demanded following the light. Furniture was lightweight so that chairs and small tables could be moved around, being set closer to the windows as sunlight faded.
The introduction of gas and electric light opened both the whole interior and the whole of the day and night up to reading, but at the turn of the 19th century houses in the Arts & Crafts style still featured box-bay windows with cushioned seats, clearly set apart for reading.
The English architect MH Baillie Scott stuffed houses with these seats (Blackwell in the Lake District has the best). CFA Voysey filled his curving bays at Broad Leys, also in the Lake District, with curving seats, while Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House offers the most beautiful reading bay I know.
Frank Lloyd Wright, too, carved out window seats and the complex, interlocking geometries of Adolf Loos’s Muller House in Prague (1929-30) sculpted intimate spaces with the cubic volume.
As Modernism took hold, spaces dedicated to reading and retreat declined but they were embodied in the attitudes of furniture. Marcel Breuer’s Long Chair, Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand’s LC4 chaise longue and the Eames lounge chair carry with them the comfort of sitting back with a book, perhaps dozing off.
Eames lounge chair and ottoman by Vitra © Heal’s
Architects and interior designers still create dedicated reading spaces, often nooks under stairs, window seats or built into the depths of walls. But the most wonderful thing about a reading space is that it need not be designed for you — you simply need to find the best spot and occupy it.
Children are inventive. Hours of artificial light were once more carefully curtailed than today. I remember being told to turn my light off by 9pm so persuaded my mum I could not sleep without a bedside lamp on because I was afraid of the dark. Which I wasn’t, but it meant I could carry on reading. Other children were more deceptive, reading by torchlight under the blankets.
Children do not have many opportunities to control their environment but creating a place to read is one of them. A shed can work, or the garden, even the front doorstep if that is where the sun is.
Hill House, near Glasgow (Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1902-04), has ‘the most beautiful reading bay I know’, says Edwin Heathcote © Antonia Reeve, National Trust for Scotland
And why stop at one space? Are certain books better read in specific places? Should some books be read in bright sunlight? Does non-fiction demand a different space from novels?
Much of my best reading is done outside the house. Trains are best but hotels a close second and when I was younger I seemed to spend a large amount of time in the launderette, which, with its steamed-up windows, worked well in winter.
Milan Kundera runs in my head with a soundtrack of rumbling tumble dryers; Raymond Chandler chips along with trains to Manchester; Italo Calvino with a long convalescence in bed (always the best place for reading until you get to a certain age and find your eyelids drooping disturbingly fast).
Should we read in opposition 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 bath — what would be best there?
LC4 chaise-longue, Le Corbusier © Cassina I Maestri Collection
We might not remember what we read but the pages crinkled by steam will remind us, as do the books we read on the beach. I have books still gritty with sand, others with coffee rings recalling languid cafés.
And if you can affect how you read by where you are, does it work the other way round? Can our experience of reading a particular work affect how we see the space? Perhaps it is a conversation between the room and the book, in which each leaves its mark on the other.
Milan Kundera runs in my head with a soundtrack of tumble dryers; with Raymond Chandler it’s trains to Manchester
We absorb what we read and it becomes us, and the books we collect build the spaces we inhabit, both physically and metaphorically. You might like to be surrounded by books while reading or you might not — sometimes those growing piles look too intimidating and distract you with the weight of everything yet to be read.
Then there is separation. We can designate a space as library or reading room or book corner and we can make ourselves a study lined with books or a home office, but we must not confuse one with the other.
I often read in my book-lined study because it is light and quiet but it is not, despite what I might tell myself, a library. It is my place of work and the desk and the laptop are always there, lurking reminders of commitments and deadlines. Work pollutes a place, it leaves a residue of guilt and unfinished to-do lists. You might be able to read there but not relax.
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There are no rules. The best place to read is where it is best to read. Designers can designate and architects can plan, but it may be that you end up slumped in an old chair in the corner or lying in bed propped up on loads of pillows or on the threshold in a rare ray of sun.
It is an act of colonisation, intimately tied to the user, not the designer. Try reading everywhere, every unlikely corner, on every sofa, chair and by every window, and see what works.
This moment of lockdown may be unique — perhaps the longest time you will have without dinners or work functions to attend. No long hours wasted on crowded trains, where even opening a book is an affront to other passengers. Time, we know, is the most precious resource.
Sure, we should dedicate a part of it to reading those big books that otherwise are too heavy or too daunting. Find your perfect reading place and indulge. Then you will have finally inhabited your home.
Writers on how they live with books
The Library at Night by Alberto ManguelBeginning with a poetic description of his own library in a converted barn in France, Manguel travels through the history of libraries and books, with diversions to Jorge Luis Borges (the blind author to whom he used to read as a boy), banned books and books of the imagination. His A History of Reading is utterly illuminating too.
Unpacking my Library by Walter Benjamin“I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order.” Benjamin’s essay covers the thrill of unpacking books, the potential for reading and the memories that accompany each volume. He writes of being surrounded by his books almost as if at a party with old friends.
Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books by Georges PerecA paean to the impossibility and perhaps even undesirability of complete order on the bookshelves, Perec’s light, witty take includes a list of places you can put books when you run out of shelf space.
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil HrabalHanta cannot bear to let go of the books he is supposed to be compacting at his job in a waste paper plant, some of them samizdat, some forbidden foreign texts, so he keeps them, reads them and builds himself an interior, a cave of paper and words, a place which becomes him. A brilliant, surreal and heartbreaking novella about the impossibility of the suppressing or disposing of literature.
The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis BorgesA very short story which has surely become the most quoted and referred to text on the nature of libraries. Not about a home but about how the library aims for completeness, which makes it inseparable from the universe itself. Borges’ heaven, his oblivion, is, of course, an endless repository of books. Haunting and slightly unsettling.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
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