Scott Woods: Agatha Christie’s Library Has Me Rethinking My Life
An inveterate book-collector considers some literary feng shui inspired by the Queen of Crime.
My home library is amazing. I have thousands of books floor to ceiling in a row of imposing bookcases. I left some space for small basement windows, but I’ve used even the tops of the shorter cases as book storage. They’re even in a rough order, first by use, then by subject. Nothing too hardcore. Despite working in libraries for many years, I don’t apply Dewey call numbers to the spines of my tomes or anything. I try not to bring that level of work home with me. As a writer, it is in my interest to apply some level of order to my references.
On the opposite wall, I have no bookshelves. It is where work gets done, but it is also where some of my personal art collection lives, hung on the wall for easy viewing while I am working as touchstones for memory, interpretation or inspiration. But not for when I am reading. If I am reading in my library, it is in a massive and too-comfy chair that splits the difference of what I refer to as “The Lab,” a field of vision sandwiched between a wall of books and a wall of art over a conglomeration of creative tools.
And yet, seeing pictures of Agatha Christie’s personal Alexandria has me smitten. Not jealous, of course. I love my library. Just reevaluating.
Here’s the thing: My library lends itself to the pleasure of deep dives and idea formulation. You could run your hand down the length of my shelves and tire your arm. There are thousands of ideas to learn and ponder, to debate and fall in love with. There are times when I sit in my reading chair and gaze upon my shelves and wonder if I have enough life left to finish reading all of the books I’ve yet to savor. (I do not. My to-be-read piles are out of control.)
By contrast, Christie’s library lends itself to the pleasure of reading, which she accomplishes by removing the distractions that books create and replaces it with art.
While Christie’s manor—The Greenway Estate—has undergone some changes over the years, most pictures of her literary armory’s shelves were only three-deep. They were long shelves, but they only come up to the top of Christie’s stomach, leaving ample wall space above. Having fewer shelves and books visible, Christie was able to hang framed art above them, effectively giving the room a horizon line. To compound matters, she has a large, looping mural across the top of the room, a space that already has very high ceilings—easily 12 feet. All of this serves to create a dreamlike savannah of images that the eye can take in between passages or peripherally. The scene sets the mood for flights of fancy that a reader can easily sample to their eye’s delight.
Being (still!) the Guinness world record-holder for selling books, she could have had a supervillain’s amount of volumes running up the walls that required a ladder to access. Instead she went the other direction: all things in their place and where she could get to them. I suppose you don’t need the kind of library I keep when you’re cranking out dozens of Poirot novels. Me? I often require the crutch of knowledge to compose.
Much is made of the escapism that reading provides, how stories and the search for knowledge can transport a reader. All of that is true. What is less considered is how setting the artistic environment for the act of reading enhances the pleasure that reading provides. As we have been experiencing a perfect autumn, I may embrace the opportunity to change things up a little before the true hibernation season approaches, giving my imagination a shot in the arm with a little literary feng shui.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.