A Place to Live a Thousand Lives

“In reading, attention is also to be paid to the How, as well as to the What.”

— The Brief Remarker on the Ways of Man, etc.. by Ezra Sampson (1823)

By the nineteenth century, reading as a pleasurable pastime was flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic. The author of the above quote viewed this development with ambivalence, lamenting that reading has become so commonly fashionable anyone could read anything and anywhere, even in the toilet(!)

Indeed, as a young reader, I had no specific place to read. A monkey swing would do. Or the diving board of a kidney-shaped swimming pool.  Reading was just reading–to be devoured and half-digested and forgotten midway through the next book.

Entering higher education, however, the act of reading becomes a necessarily serious business. College libraries are generally constructed to reflect that. An excellent example is the Mary Helen Cochran Library at Sweet Briar College.

Often compared to the Banqueting House at Whitehall,  the Cochran Library bears the legacy of Inigo Jones–Corinthian pilasters, horizontal cornices, and an elegant balustrade.

It was built in 1929, to the design of Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), eminent American architect heavily influenced by Regency-era European building design. He is best remembered for his execution of the Gothic Revival in ecclesiastical (NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine) and academic (West Point) buildings.

Cram was also a prolific author–his little horror short story, The Dead Valley, is a gem for Halloween reading.

For the red-brick library and other buildings at the fledgling college for women, Cram chose Georgian Revival, reflecting what was traditional and architecturally pleasing in the Virginia Piedmont.

Cram’s little gem is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is featured in a Library Journal walking tour as well as the American Libraries Library Design Showcase.

There are two spaces in the Cochran which are devoted to reading. The first is the Reading Room, a soaring space flanked by dark wood bookcases, illuminated by light streaming in through the Palladian windows high above. The ceiling is quite fine, its plaster-work sporting ribbon, fruit and flowers.

The Reading Room in 1935. It is essentially unchanged.

Just beyond the Reading Room is the place where I first discovered the pleasure of having a specific place to read–where the how of reading began to influence what I was reading. Paneled in dark cypress, the Browsing Room resembles the private library of an Edwardian country estate, with a fireplace that only needs a Clumber spaniel sleeping before it, the mantel carrying the portrait of donor’s mother for whom the library is named.  The bookshelves are beautifully carved with a deep red color backing in Pompeiian red. They are custom made for the room.

Over seventy years later, the Browsing Room is unchanged (the portrait removed to protect it from nearby renovations).

In 1935, the Browsing Room was presided over by the portrait of Mary Cochran.









It is a space that is permanent–the best in the world “for living a thousand lives,” to quote author George R. R. Martin.

Since college days, I’ve had many places to read, and they all resemble the Browsing Room in one way or another. My reading spaces are sanctuaries, steady, serene and immovable, even as my reading tastes have changed from time to time.

Sweet Briar College, as seen from the gate leading from Daisy’s grave. Thanks to the valiant efforts of alumnae, the gates of this institution dedicated to the liberal education of women will remain open, and one hopes permanently.

I was recently asked what my dream reading space would look like and was introduced to Arhaus.com. I’ve got my eye on their Portsmouth settee and they have many other unique living room pieces great for a personal library.


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