Monday, September 16, 2013

Thomas Jefferson's books

Without his books, Thomas Jefferson would not have been Thomas Jefferson.
Bill Bryson, At Home

In colonial America, it didn't take much to build an impressive personal library. And until Benjamin Franklin started the first subscription library in 1731, there wasn't any other kind. John Harvard had 400 books when he died, a number "considered so colossal that they named Harvard College after him," Bill Bryon reports. When Thomas Jefferson, living in rural Virginia, began accumulating a thousand books every decade or so, people noticed. Like most of us who love our books, Jefferson was protective of them. Visitors were allowed to look over his library only if he himself accompanied them.

Yet after the British burned the new nation's library during the War of 1812, Jefferson offered to sell his entire library as a replacement. It amounted to 6,487 books, for which he received $23,900. The librarians were unimpressed with many of his books, which covered such topics as cooking, wine making and art that they weren't interested in. Others were in foreign languages or were of an "immoral and irreligious nature."

After that, Jefferson set about building a new library with the money he got from his old one, while the Library of Congress used his books as the start of what was to become the largest library in the world, now including more than 115 million books, many of them about such topics as cooking, wine making and art.

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