John Buchan on the Library


Most authors, one would assume, have a love of books. But there are a few authors who have such a love of books and fine libraries, that it appears in their works with great regularity. John Buchan is one such man. In reading through his Richard Hannay series this past year I was surprised how many times he made reference to books, or described in glowing terms the library of a main character. Even the antagonist in The Three Hostages gets his library detailed for the reader.


Now, I’ve always loved libraries. The authors who bring fine libraries to life in their novels, however, are rare. It happened a lot in film. Take Henry Higgins breathtaking library in My Fair Lady, the grand library where “X” appeared in The Last Crusade, or Sir Lindenbrook’s study in the 1959 Journey To The Center Of The Earth. Books figure as a large part of the atmosphere in movies. Those filmmakers made such a marvelous and beautiful background with those shelves of books. Why don’t more authors do the same in their medium? I don’t know. Maybe because many modern writing courses tell writers to avoid detailed description (it slows down the action). But for whatever reason, it is not common.


Maybe that’s why Buchan’s descriptions stand out. He wrote action-packed thrillers. Mysteries and adventures. His pace is not hampered by his fine descriptive prose. It adds a beauty that makes it a step above the typical “thriller” novel. Stunning descriptions that paint a scene across your mind’s eye with all the vividness of a sunrise. And he concentrated much of this prose on books and libraries. Much to my delight. Tucked skillfully between the kidnappings, manhunts, murders, romance, and fistfights are the loveliest portraits of a gentleman’s study, and rows upon rows of well worn books.


I’d like to quote many of the sections in the paragraph below, but I don’t want to rob the reader of discovering them in the context of the stories, so I’ll limit myself to a few short pieces from The Island Of Sheep.

“He opened a door and ushered me into an enormous room which must have occupied the whole space on that floor. It was oblong with deep bays at each end, and it was lined from floor to ceiling with books. Books, too, were piled on the tables, and sprawled on a big flat couch which was drawn up before the fire. It wasn’t an ordinary gentleman’s library, provided by the bookseller at so much a yard. It was a working collection of a scholar, and the books had that used look which makes them the finest tapestry for a room. The place was lit with lights on small tables, and on a big desk under a reading lamp were masses of papers and various volumes with paper slips in them. It was a workshop as well as a library.”

…the books had that well used look which make them the finest tapestry for a room.

I love that sentence. If I were ever to write a book on home décor I would put that in large, bold type where it couldn’t possibly be missed. 🙂

“…and above all a library. That library was the pleasantest room in the house, and it was clearly Haradsen’s favorite, for it had the air of a place cherished and lived in…It was lined everywhere with books, books which had the look of being used, and which consequently made that soft tapestry which no collection of august bindings can ever provide. ‘The treasures were my father’s,’ said Haraldsen. ‘Myself, I do not want posessions. Only my books.’ ”

“In the library after dinner I got my notion of Lombard further straightened out, for the room was a museum of the whole run of his interests. Sandy, who could never refrain from looking round any collection of books, bore me out. The walls on three sides were lined to the ceiling with books, which looked in the dim light like rich tapestry hangings…”

Have you read an author whose love of literature and libraries permeates his writing? Do you have a favorite Buchan quote on books?