Do We Need Libraries? Do We Need Huge Personal Libraries?

by Glenn Cooper

Anyone who knows me well, knows that libraries are important in my life. My first exposure occurred when I was very young and my mother dragged me 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 something. To me the stacks were mysterious, intriguing labyrinths that filled my nostrils with the mustiness that the best libraries emit. In college, my favorite place on the Harvard campus was the Widener Library, one of the largest in America, 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 that 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 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 sometimes hundreds of research books to my collection. 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.

Sign of the Cross triggered a buying spree on the esoteric topic of stigmatics—clergy members or lay people who develop bleeding manifestations of the wounds of Christ. In the book, Cal Donovan is asked by the Pope to do an informal, off-the-books investigation of a young stigmatic Italian priest who was rapidly developing a cult of followers. Was he a faker? Was he a true stigmatic? Why were powerful, shadowy figures willing to kill to uncover the origins of the priest’s stigmata? Now I own about three dozen books on stigmatics that I have organized around a small plaster bust of the most famous modern stigmatic, the Italian monk, Padre Pio.

When we decided to flee New England winters for Sarasota, Florida, I had a problem. 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 with a gallery on one end and a library/writer’s loft on the other. Of course, we needed to create a hidden staircase and moveable bookcase to access the gallery that even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t find because, why not?

At night, I like to browse my 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.

Glenn Cooper is an internationally bestselling thriller writer. His previous books, including his bestselling Library of the Dead trilogy, have been translated into 31 languages and have sold over 7 million copies. He graduated from Harvard University, Magna Cum Laude, with a B.A. in Archeology. Cooper attended Tufts University School of Medicine and then practiced internal medicine and infectious diseases in hospitals, clinics, and refugee camps in conflict zones before joining the biotechnology industry where he was the CEO of several publicly traded companies. Now he writes full-time and lives in Florida and New Hampshire.