On a rainy Monday night, a small group of new graduate students in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University let ourselves timidly into professor Richard Macksey’s home (shown on the proceeding pages) for the first of our weekly literature classes. We drift past cats playing on the Oriental rugs and are goggling greedily at the contents of numerous freestanding bookcases when Macksey appears and ushers us through the book-lined dining room into the book-crammed “stack room,” and from there into the library, where our class will be held.
En route, my eyes alight on a fantastic array of titles that reflect the breadth of Macksey’s academic and personal interests, from Chinese novels to 15th-century commentaries on Virgil’s “Aeneid” to an advance reader’s copy of Oliver Sacks’ “Seeing Voices,” inscribed “To Dick, with many thanks…” Several annual holiday cards from John Waters perch, perhaps coincidentally, in a section devoted to film history and criticism. Though the library gives a strong first impression of disorder, I soon learn that it’s packed quite precisely in sections— History of Medicine is separate from American Modernist poetry, which is across the library from classical works in early Greek.
In the library, we sit at a long oak table— with Macksey, pipe clenched in his teeth, presiding from its head— surrounded by book-lined built-9in shelves that span the 15 feet from floor to ceiling. Stepladders on tracks offer access to the highest shelves, but each step of each ladder is stacked precariously with books, as are the large able and all the side tables and several of the chairs.
The library was built in 1972 as an addition to the house Macksey and his late wife, Catherine, had bought 10 years earlier. It’s easy to imagine it rendered in pen-and-ink as an illustration from a Victorian novel, say something by Henry James. In fact, Henry James is one of Macksey’s special interests, and he started his collection with an edition of James’ book “Roderick Hudson” in 1944. “I was 13, and I had birthday money, $5” recollects Macksey. “I took a trolley— it was 10 cents in those days— from the New Jersey suburbs into Newark. The book cost me $3.75, which left me enough to have lunch and go to the museum. At that time, you had to buy most of James, he wasn’t available in libraries. They were mostly first editions and mostly under $5.
“That was back when you thought you could read everything,” he murmurs. “It took me years to find out that wasn’t the case.”
His students have a hard time believing he hasn’t read everything, since he has a miraculously informed response to every question, no matter how off-the-wall. Modern Russian theorists, Renaissance-era erotic works pseudonymously attributed to nuns… He’s rarely caught off-guard, especially in any of his six languages. To better illustrate a point, he often plucks a couple of volumes from among the 70,000 in his home. When we study “Swann’s Way,” the first book of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” he reads to us from a first French edition inscribed by Proust to a friend, Prince Emmanuel Bibesco, who was a model for a character in the immense work. “All those first editions of ‘Swann’ are association copies,” he says, “because I don’t think he managed to sell any. They were all given to friends, and friends of friends.”
Macksey is a confessed pack rat with a fondness, he says, for “damaged goods.” This has translated into one specialty of his collection, association copies, “the only area of collecting where the worse the condition, the more interesting the book.” Association copies either belonged to an author, and so are full of his or her notes and markings, or contain an inscription that makes the value of the book transcend that of its original contents. Macksey is especially taken, for example, with a book of W.B. Yeats’ poetry that the Irish writer presented to an actress who had acted in a number of his plays. “The inscription is lovely, in Yeats’ hand,” says Macksey. “’To Mrs. Patrick Campbell, whose performance as the wife in ‘Beyond Human Powers’ had the simplicity, sincerity, austerity, which the writer of this book has tried for in his work too often in vain.’ Very gallant. He marked this copy for her to read the poems aloud, just very light pencil markings, for stress and so on. This is a book which is much used, but it’s more interesting because it’s used.”
While Macksey has at times resisted concerted pressure to make money from his passion, at others&mdash times of need— he has sold. He says that much of his collection will go to Johns Hopkins eventually, and has already gifted to the university certain items he felt should be in its collection. “If you are close to a library, you come to learn what they don’t have, and you collect things that fill in gaps, which is great fun.”
Browsing his stacks, he pulls a few books by the American poet Marianne Moore off the shelf, to show how she liked to correct her own books after they were published. The inscription in one reads: “More scarce than rare, more rare than valuable.” The poet has also enclosed a card to Macksey, in which she says, “You demonstrate that one can be an academic and at the same time write and be cheerful. I am very grateful.” As I read the card, Macksey takes off in obvious embarrassment, looking for some other treasure to share. —Padma Viswanathan
Cherished volumes fill the shelves of Gary Pushkin and Kathy Abbott’s renovated library.
On their first anniversary, orthopedic surgeon Gary Pushkin gave his wife, Kathy Abbott, a former linguist, a traditional gift of paper: a book of 15th-century love letters. It sits on the shelves of the family’s library, pressed amid other treasures like an antique prescription jar that belonged to Abbott’s grandmother in Italy, and Abbott’s collection of Italian and French literature. Pushkin’s tastes are evident in the medical and orthopedic surgery texts and his large collection of Judaic literature.
Like their taste in books, the couple had different approaches to designing the library in their Guilford home. “I had input on the practical aspects, she [Abbott] handled the design aesthetics, and my job was to tell her if I could live with her decision,” says Pushkin.
Building the library was equal parts restoration and creation. A carpenter stripped away nearly 10 coats of paint from the walls to expose the paint-grade poplar underneath. With the application of both stain and wax, the wood was transformed into a rich-looking paneling. Abbott then borrowed space from a neighboring hall close to build recessed shelves and commissioned an armoire to replicate a 17th-centrtury piece she saw in Italy. It hides Pushkin’s computer equipment so as not to distract from the wood-paneled simplicity of the traditional library. A large photograph by local artist Connie Imboden and a triptych by Soledad Salome add to the simple artistry of the book collection.
“Despite the large size of the room, I think it is welcoming, cozy,” says Abbott. “I find it a great place to crawl into one of the big chairs and read, especially in winter with the fire going.”
Although both husband and wife have their own favorites among their collection— hers is a first edition of an Italian etiquette book from the 1600s, his a 17th-century medical text— they’re united in using the library (which doesn’t have a TV) as a means to introduce a love of books to their children. “To put books in the same room as a television makes the books decoration,” says Pushkin. “They’re mutually exclusive concepts.” —Christianna McCausland
A cathedral of books
Reading is a way of life for Thomas and Joyce Ward, so they gave their books a good home.
When visitors encounter the library of Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ward and his wife, Joyce, their initial reaction is usually, “Oh my gosh, look at all those books!” says Joyce, a homemaker. A long narrow room furnished with Oriental rugs and comfortable reading chairs, the library feels like a grand old cathedral of books. Custom-built shelves brimming with books soar to the full height of the 12 ½-foot ceilings of the Bolton Hill house, and cover almost every wall. For the Wards, who do not own a television set and rarely bother with the radio, books are not just entertainment; they are a way of life.
“We’ve had a library; since we were first married,” explains Judge Ward, “but I started collecting books when I was about age 10 or 11. I started with the Hardy Boys. I read every one of them as soon as they were printed.”
Ward’s current collection does not reflect his boyhood tastes, but rather his passion for history. His books cover every major period, from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the rise and fall of Enron. Each epoch— the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the history of the Mafia— is organized chronologically around the room.
One shelf is dedicated to what the judge calls, “the greatest books every written.” These seven prize volumes include Rachel Carson’s environmental work, “Silent Spring,” two books by Ayn Rand, and Guy Sajer’s “The Forgotten Soldier,” a book the judge first read in French. Tucked away at toddler-level is a shelf of colorful children’s books for the Wards’ grandchildren.
“When you are a book lover, you use them and they are everywhere: at the bedside, in the basement, on the coffee table,” says Ward. “Books have permanence in our house.” —Christianna McCausland
Objects of beauty
John King’s Bolton Hill library reflects his love for all things English.
Some mean take up golf in retirement, John King took up book collecting. As an aide on Capitol Hill, King had little time to read, but when he retired in 1992 and returned for a time to his hometown of Boston, he made some new friends, one of whom worked in rare books at Harvard University. “You meet one rare book person, you meet another, and I started running around with a lot of rare book people,” he says. “It was fascinating.”
King’s Bolton Hill library reflects his passion for all things English, particularly the art and writing of the Aesthetic movement of the Victorian era. As a student at Oxford University and later working in England for the Treasury Department, King developed a taste for Oscar Wilde and William Morris as well as the art of John Singer Sargent and James Tissot. Even the library itself reflects his interest in this period; it was designed with the help of a friend from the Library of Congress and is painted a rich blue with bright coral-pink accents in the Gothic Revival tradition. King rents rooms in his home to students at the Maryland Institute College of Art and some of their works share wall space with an original page from a Kelmscott Press publication and a poster for the Boston Book Fair autographed by its artist, the late Edward Gorey.
Although King enjoys reading and discussing books with friends— among them Sargent’s grandson, who visits King— he is also enamored of the beauty of books. “One of the things about this period is that nothing was too mundane to be made pretty,” he explains, gently paging through a rare 19th-century reproduction of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” that is bound in vellum and ornately stamped in gold.
King buys mot of his books via the Internet, especially rare volumes, like his first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s commentary on Rossetti. His continued pursuit of books and knowledge is equal parts love of books for their own sake, interest in 19th-century British history and his own quest to recapture a piece of his old school days at Oxford.
“You could call it ‘escape,’ but to me, this is a great refuge that takes me back to something that has interested me since I was 19,” he says. “It is a place to be reunited with my youth.” —Christianna McCausland
Michael and Rosalie Pakenham like nothing more than curling up in front of a roaring fire with a good read.
For Rosalie and Michael Pakenham, books are the life’s blood of two careers in writing and publishing. Now a free-lance writer, Rosalie worked as both a writer and editor for publications including The San Francisco Chronicle and Sunset magazine. Breaking the story of the Jim Jones cult through an investigative report in New West magazine. Michael is a Pulitzer Prize-w9nning journalist whose career has spanned publications such as Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune and even Spin magazine. Until his recent retirement, Michael spent the last decade editing the books section of The Sun. But don’t expect to see any of the volumes he reviewed in the Pakenhams’ home; they are all donated to libraries. The Pakenhams fill their own library with cherished books, many written by friends or Michael’s family members.
“That room is all books with special meaning, or books that are old or valuable,” says Rosalie of the tomes housed in their library, the former kitchen of the circa-1790 home in Wellsville, Pas., in the heart of a Mennonite community. “Michael had a vision to tear out everything but the fireplace and make it a new, comfortable library,” Rosalie explains. The deep garnet carpet was his idea as well, to give the room a warm ambience, and the 7-foot-tall fireplace with its ancient oak lintel is still used on cool winter evenings when the Pakenhams are reading or entertaining guests.
The Pakenhams’ collection points to their professional and personal connection to words. There are books by Anne Lamott, the maid of honor at the pakenhams’ wedding. There are books signed by Michael’s friend, author Tom Wolfe, and wine books that recall Michael’s tenure as a wine columnist. While Michael says he could never do without his collection of Shakespeare, Rosalie has a sentimental attachment to her copy of “The Shropshire Lad,” given to her by her first beau at age 16.
Rosalie explains that she and Michael must constantly edit their collection to keep from being inundated by books. It’s a tough task, one fraught with emotion. “I feel a personal attachment to some books, like they’re friends,” says Rosalie. “Books have a special resonance for both of us.” —Christianna McCausland