St James's Square, between Pall Mall and Piccadilly, is the venue this weekend for a one-off literary festival, featuring some of the biggest names in British writing, theatre and broadcasting. Words in the Square is a celebration of – and a fundraiser for – the London Library, which has occupied a house on a corner of the square for most of its 175 years.
With about one million books, it’s the largest independent lending library in the world but for its members, it’s much more than that. When you push open the heavy entrance door and pass through the electronic turnstile, you find yourself in a place that’s at once rarified and unpredictable.
Unlike most libraries, members can borrow as many as 10 books at a time without fear of a fine for late returns. If another member is looking for the book you’ve borrowed, you receive a polite request to return it. Otherwise, you are left in peace.
Founded by Thomas Carlyle, its first committee included Charles Dickens and its past presidents include Alfred, Lord Tennyson and TS Eliot. Today's president is Tom Stoppard. Carlyle was moved to set up a lending library in London by his frustration at the British Library, which he said was filled with "snorers, snufflers, wheezers, spitters – exhalers of all fumes between the aromatic and the mephitic – the fidgety, the half-hour readers – those who spell to themselves".
Carlyle could never find a seat at the British Library and even if he did, by the time he made the journey to Bloomsbury from his home in Chelsea, he had little more than an hour to read before it was time to leave. He needed a library that would allow him to take the books home.
“A book is a kind of thing that requires a man to be self-collected. He must be alone with it,” he said.
What makes the London Library special, above all, is the fact that more than 90 per cent of the books are on the shelves, offering endless hours of browsing. The cataloguing system remains a little eccentric but it’s all the better for that, generating the kind of serendipity that is impossible in more strictly organised libraries.
The books are held in metal shelves along narrow corridors illuminated by fluorescent tubes controlled by a long pull-string at the entrance to each stack. The soft pop of the light, along with the occasional electrical shock from the metal stacks, is among the sensory elements of the London Library experience.
That's not the only electricity in action, as the late John Wells noted in his history of the library, Rude Words, where he remarked on the "heavily charged erotic atmosphere in the Reading Room". The reports of liaisons in the library are legion, from the couple who made love among the Early Fathers on the top floor to numerous encounters in the notoriously slow, cramped lift.
Writing to his friend Lady Mary Lygon in November 1946, Evelyn Waugh urged her to behave with suitable decorum in the "grave precincts" of the library.
“Never write ‘balls’ with an indelible pencil on the margins of the books provided. Do not solicit the female librarians to acts of unnatural vice. When very drunk it is permissible to fall into a light doze but not to sing… By observing a few simple rules such as the foregoing you will find yourself perfectly acceptable to the more amorous scholars who abound in the darkened bays,” he wrote.
Sitting in the Reading Room last week, looking out on to St James's Square through the great high windows and around the room at my fellow readers, it seemed that none of us was likely to quicken one another's pulse. But the lovely idleness of the place was very much in evidence, as novelists avoided writing by reading and students avoided reading by gazing into space. The late Noel Annan, a former president of the library, characterised such idleness as creative laziness.
“People forget how important it is to be lazy in libraries. Not of course idle: idleness means day-dreaming,” he wrote.
“Laziness means reading the books one ought not to be reading, and becoming so absorbed in them and following the trails along which they lead you that at the end of the day you still have most of the reading to do that you had before that morning. Creative laziness broadens the mind.”