On the first Tuesday of the year, the author and political activist Don Winslow tweeted a photo of an avid reader’s dream library. Bathed in the buttery glow of three table lamps, nearly every surface of the room is covered with books. There are books on the tables, books stacked on mahogany ladders, and books on top of more books along the shelves of the room. “I hope you see the beauty of this that I do,” wrote Mr Winslow in the tweet, which was recognized with 32,800 hearts.
If you spend enough time in the literary corners of Twitter, this image may look familiar to you. It rises again almost every year, and the library has been attributed to authors over the years including Umberto eco and buildings in Italy and Prague. Similar to other images with beautiful bookshelvesPeople are going to go crazy over it. Mr. Winslow’s message received 1,700 responses, including: one of a professor at Pace University who used the photo as the zoom background.
“Obviously it’s the home of someone who likes and collects books,” Mr. Winslow said in an email through his agent, Shane Salerno. “For me, that photo is as beautiful as a sunset. I could be locked in that library for days and days studying every book.” He noted that there’s something reassuring about the image, as “it’s a room you could happily get lost in.”
Mr. Winslow had no idea where the photo came from. He had found it himself on Twitter, but could not remember the name or location of the library. (Although he thought it was the personal library of a prominent author from another country.)
The library, it must be known, is not in Europe. It doesn’t even exist anymore. But when it happened, it was the home library of Johns Hopkins professor Dr. Richard Macksey in Baltimore. (I was his student in 2015 and interviewed him for Literary Hub in 2018.) Macksey, who passed away in 2019, was a book collector, polyglot, and comparative literature scholar. At Hopkins, he founded one of the nation’s first interdisciplinary academic departments and hosted the conference “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” in 1966. including groundbreaking lectures by the theorists Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Paul de Man.
The book collection of Dr. Macksey, according to his son Alan, amounted to 51,000 titles, excluding magazines and other ephemera. Ten years ago, the most valuable pieces – including the first editions of ‘Moby Dick’, TS Eliot’s ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’ and works by Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley – were moved to a ‘special collections’ room at the Hopkins campus. After the death of Dr. Macksey spent three weeks scouring his book-filled, 7,400-square-foot home to select 35,000 volumes to add to the university’s libraries.
Surprising discoveries included an 18th-century Rousseau text with charred covers (found in the kitchen), a “pristine” copy of a rare 1950s exhibition catalog featuring Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings, posters of the May 1968 protests when students in Paris occupied the Sorbonne, a hand-drawn Christmas card by filmmaker John Waters, and the theorists’ original recordings at that 1966 conference on structuralism.
‘For years everyone had said ‘those lectures should be recorded.’ Well, we finally found the recordings of those lectures. They were hidden in a cupboard behind a bookshelf behind a sofa,” said Liz Mengel, associate director of collections and academic services for the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins. Several first editions of 20th-century poets and novelists sat on a shelf in the laundry room.
After the librarians at Hopkins and nearby Loyola Notre Dame finished selecting their donations, the remaining books were disposed of by a dealer so Dr. Macksey was able to prepare the house for sale.
The library image bypasses all those details to evoke something more universal, said Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of the Aesthetics of Joy, a blog about the relationship between decor and pleasure. “We’re drawn to the image and we come up with all kinds of stories about who it could be and what it could be because we like to tell stories,” she said. “But what really drives the attraction is much more visceral.”
Ms. Fetell Lee pointed to the sense of abundance in the photo. “There’s something about the sensory abundance of seeing a lot of something that gives us a little thrill,” she said. Also relevant: the “satisfying” sense of organized chaos and awe inspired by the high ceilings.
Photos of books and libraries are popular on social platforms. An Instagram representative said some of the most popular posts on the platform with the words “library” or “libraries” feature large volumes of books, a “cozy” aesthetic, or a warmer color scheme.
What would Dr. Macksey if he knew his library had taken on a life of its own? “My father loved nothing more than to share his love of books and literature with others,” said Alan Macksey. “He would be happy that his library lives on through this photo.”