“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.