WHEN I was confirmed 30 years ago, my godfather admitted, full of shame, that he’d completely forgotten I was his godson. He made up for it in spades with his confirmation present: a year’s membership to the London Library, SW1, the greatest lending library in the world, which has thankfully re-opened after the grim days of lockdown.
Tucked into the north-west corner of St James’s Square, the London Library’s tall, thin façade—not unlike the spine of a book—looks rather puny next to the Palladian palazzi in one of London’s earliest garden squares, founded in 1661.
But appearances can be deceptive. Behind that etiolated, late-Victorian exterior, there stretches a rabbit warren of bookshelves, reading rooms and higgledy-piggledy extensions. Today, the library has more than one million books, covering 2,000 subjects in 55 different languages. The books range from 1500 to modern times, together with bound copies of some 2,000 periodicals dating from 1699 to the present day.
There’s something magical about the fact that you can take all of these books out. And the fact that you’re allowed to keep them for as long as you like—or until another member wants the book you’ve taken out. I’ve had London Library books with their handsome bookplates on the cover on my shelves at home for years at a time. That’s why historian Thomas Carlyle founded the library in 1841 —because, at that time, there were no lending libraries in London and state-funded ones did not yet exist.
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