J.P. Morgan didn’t make books, he made money. But he made so much money that he decided to start collecting books. Then he built a library to house his books. And hired his own personal librarian.
The Morgan Library (& Museum) is proof that money can buy style. The entire complex is an elegant assemblage of heavy velvet chairs, stately fireplaces with ornate cast iron firebacks, delicate stained glass windows, and soaring frescos. And the walls are covered in books. Shelves and shelves of books. Storeys and storeys of shelves and shelves of books.
Over the years Morgan acquired three Gutenberg Bibles (because one copy of the oldest printed book in the world is never enough), countless other illuminated manuscripts, fragments of original cuneiform (the oldest written language IN! THE! WORLD!), and a trove of other original texts, like the first (extra-sodomitical) manuscript of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.
A letter from Hemingway rejecting George Plimpton’s interview request displays his characteristic style, but little of the tact of For Whom the Bell Tolls:
“I might say ‘Fuck the Art of Fiction’, which would give a wrong impression as what I would really mean was Fuck talking about it. Let us practice it and shut up.”
Standing in the main library chamber, ogling all the folios, it takes a minute to realise that there is no way of accessing the upper levels. The room has three levels of book shelves, all loaded with literary deliciousess. There are, however, no apparent stairs or ladders; no way to explore the full wonders of the library.
This is Morgan’s masterstroke. An elegant library may be a bookworm’s every delight, but he goes one step further. His library has secret passageways. Behind the shelves are concealed stairways that climb up to the curving walkways of the higher levels.
It was when I learned of these secret passages that I decided that the Morgan was not merely a repository of rare books; it is itself a giant, inhabitable novel, a work of fabulous, fictitious fantasy. A three-dimensional Poe tale. A garden of motherforking paths.