By Jeremy Paxman, author of ‘Empire’.
London can claim a fairly impressive range of buildings and institutions, but for me one tower’s over all the rest – The London Library in St James’s Square. Years ago, I used to go to the old circular reading room of the British Library, imagining that if I stayed there long enough I would immediately acquire wisdom just by soaking up the atmosphere of all the great thinkers who worked there. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that at least half of the ticket holders were stark raving mad. In the twenty years I have been a member of the London Library, I have encountered very few mad people in their reading room, if that is a permissible thing to say.
My love of it is not just the relative sanity of its members, the content of the reading room, or the fact that it’s completely tranquil because addicts of mobiles or laptops have to go have to go next door to use them. I adore its physical construction which was completed at the end of the Victorian era.
It almost feels like a cloister, yet it is actually quite open. It is also uplifting being surrounded by thousands of reference books in the dictionary galleries and hundreds of obscure magazines.
All the mainstream publications are there, but if you are looking for diversion you can always browse through the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora or the bulletin of the Association des Amis d’Andre Gide.
I also can’t think of anywhere else where you can find the word for, say, microphone in Amharic or Anamneses (the London Library’s archaic word for the Vietnamese language) within ten yards of where you are sitting.
There is also something wonderful about the presence of the half a dozen or so leather bound armchairs in the Reading Room. And there is always that overwhelming feeling when you can’t keep your eyes open at three o’clock on a winter afternoon.
The real joy of the Reading Room is that you are only seconds away from the stacks of the London Library, which is the biggest private lending library in the world. You can wonder among more than a million books and never quite know what you are going to discover. If you look through Science and Miscellaneous, there are categories that range from Celibacy to Somnambulism.
And if you can’t get through everything you find, you are actually allowed to take the books home for a couple of months. All of these factors make it the most magical room to work in. I have written much of my books in the Reading Room and the London Library, including my latest (Jeremy Paxman on Royalty). It was here that I found out most of the obscure information I used about King Zog of Albania.
In fact, what I really love about it and the London Library as a whole is that it is serious without with-out being in the least oppressive. And the fact that, even if I rack my brains, I can’t think of single thing about it that irritates me – which may be something of a first.
This article was originally published in Bonhams Magazine – Jeremy Paxman, broadcaster and author is also Vice President of the London Library, for more information www.londonlibrary.co.uk