Zinsser on Friday

One Man’s Library

By William Zinsser | September 10, 2010


The blockbuster trilogy Mutiny on the Bounty was written by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff in the 1930s in Tahiti, where both men had their home. Hall’s widow, Sarah Hall, still lived in the house that she and her husband built 10 miles outside the town of Papeete, and in 1956, on a writing tour of the South Seas, I went around to see her.

It was a comfortable wooden house with spacious rooms and screened verandas that looked out on garish tropical foliage. Hall had been dead for five years, but he was still alive in the house, his hat hanging on a peg, his typewriter and a falling-apart atlas waiting on an ink-stained blotter, his thousands of books spilling into the kitchen. That library included 27 volumes by Joseph Conrad, who was Hall’s hero and for whom he named his son. (The cinematographer Conrad Hall would win an Academy Award for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)

Keeping Joseph Conrad company were the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson, the 12-volume Works of Benjamin Franklin, the nine-volume Writings of Thomas Jefferson, and sets of Washington Irving, Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scott. Modern American literature was broadly represented: Thurber, Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett and the writer Hall most admired, Willa Cather. One entire wall was crammed with works of naval history: The Life of Admiral Bligh, Trial of the Bounty Mutineers, Sea Life in Nelson’s Time by John Masefield, English Seamen by Robert Southey; 60 volumes of the Annual Register of England from 1758 to 1857; and countless other reference volumes, some with place markings sticking out and notes scribbled in the margins.

“I was always jealous of the books—they took so much of my husband’s time,” Sarah Hall told me. “He once asked me what I wanted to do with them when he died—maybe give them to a library? I said, ‘Why, Jimmy, it wouldn’t be my house if it didn’t have those books.’”

Today I sometimes think of that library, assembled on a faraway speck of land by an American boy from Colfax, Iowa (population 1,749), because no such library will ever be assembled again. The world’s knowledge has been digitized, its literature is fast being Kindled. Does any architect still design a house with a “library”? Does any interior decorator advise a client to decorate a wall with bookshelves? Does any carpenter remember how to build a bookcase?

Book-lined rooms were part of our shared domestic landscape. To walk into a house with books was an unspoken promise of conversation that would jump beyond the events of the day. Brightly colored book jackets, waving for attention, were also good companions, a linear museum of handsome typography and graphic design through the decades.

I don’t expect to feel the same glow when I walk into one of the high-tech “home entertainment centers” that will constitute the libraries of tomorrow.

[Also see “Tristes Tropiques,” by William Zinsser, about the screenwriter Ernest Lehman, an outcast in Tahiti after being fired from the set of Sweet Smell of Success.]

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