Anyone who knows me well knows that libraries are important in my life. My first exposures occurred when I was very young and was dragged along by my mother to a library where she was doing her dissertation work. I was given a book to occupy myself at a long wooden table in the reading room and taken into the stacks whenever she needed to find a particular volume. To me the stacks were mysterious, intriguing labyrinths where my nostrils were filled with the not-unpleasant mustiness that certain libraries emit. In college, my favorite place on the Harvard campus was the Widener Library, one of the largest in the country, where the shelves seemed as endless as the infinite library Jorge Luis Borges conceived in The Library of Babel. Wandering through libraries and archives is my idea of heaven. To me, they are secular cathedrals celebrating the best of mankind—the drive to create and traffic in ideas.
When I became a novelist, my obsession with libraries bled into my books. It was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (where a library was central to the plot) that taught me that it was possible to write a book that was esoteric, even quite academic, but also a page-turning thriller capable of capturing a large audience. With that as inspiration, I wrote my first thriller, Library of the Dead, where a vast, ancient library is the engine of the mystery, and two million copies sold in thirty translations later, my career was launched. Libraries continue to play leading roles in my books. In my current series, beginning with Sign of the Cross, Harvard professor of religion, Cal Donovan, is granted unique browsing rights to the Vatican Secret Archives and the Vatican Apostolic Library, a device which has filled my head with plot ideas.
So, when it comes to my own library, I have always been particular. I own about five thousand books and still have every one I ever bought or inherited. Once in, never out. I like to arrange them by chapters of my own life. I got my university degree in archaeology so there are my anthropology and archaeology shelves. I studied and practiced medicine so there are shelves on medicine, chemistry, biology. I attended film school so there are books on film production and screenplays. For each novel I’ve written I’ve added hundreds of research books to my collection and each research topic commands its own shelf space. I’m interested in history and literature, and have a small collection of signed, first editions of my favorite authors. And, of course, there are my own books.
Although my wife and I have always loved New England, the winters took a toll physically and mentally and thoughts, as they do, turned to Florida, specifically Sarasota, an outpost of culture and tropical beauty. It’s also something of a haven for writers with an august writer’s group, the Liar’s Club, formed in the 1950s by John MacDonald of Cape Fear fame, centering around cut-throat games of liar’s poker. The problem was my books. I had a wonderful library in Massachusetts but when we went hunting for a place to live, most houses were not only devoid of libraries, they were depressingly devoid of books! The house we settled upon had some built-in bookcases but they would not suffice.
Enter my son, a spacial genius, who mapped out a solution of turning the vaulted great room into a two-storey library on one end and a library writer’s loft on the other. Of course, there there was the need to create a hidden staircase to access the gallery that even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t find because, why not? Once a master carpenter was pressed into service, a dream-library was born. Now I walk the white-sand beaches, tut at news stories about snow storms up north, play liar’s poker on Fridays, and write every day of the week. And at night, I like to browse my own library. With the simple act of letting my eye settle on this shelf, then that, I can wander through my past and think about things happy and sad, small and profound, the myriad words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters that comprise a life.
Sign of the Cross is published by Severn House