Building the Perfect Library

Creating a room that's rich in personal history

One year ago I was an editor at The Paris Review, thinking about publishing great literature, when somewhat unexpectedly I was approached with an offer to create a library for the Core Club, a spectacularly beautiful new private club on Manhattan's East 55th Street whose membership fees start at $55,000. Intrigued by this proposal, I began seriously considering the art of collecting books and, in particular, how to develop a library with a contemporary feel. I don't hold a degree in library science. I'd been an English major at Princeton and later got my MBA from Harvard. What did I know about building a library? Not much. What I'd need, I quickly figured out, was a strategy—and a team of trusted experts to lean on.

Because the club was acquiring contemporary art pieces, I decided first to assemble the must-have books related to this subject matter. Yvonne Force Villareal, the club's art curator, suggested I begin with monographs on artists whose pieces she'd hang on the walls. Among this group: Damien Hirst (I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Booth-Clibborn, 2005), Anish Kapoor (My Red Homeland, Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2004), Ed Ruscha (Ed Ruscha and Photography, Steidl, 2004), and Andy Warhol (Red Books, the boxed edition, Steidl, 2004).

Photographers, architects, editors, curators, and collectors were key to my education. Ariel Meyerowitz, then running her eponymous photo gallery in Chelsea, taught me about the best photography books: Roxana Marcoci's Thomas Demand (Museum of Modern Art, 2005), which includes a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides along with a fantastic introduction by Glen D. Lowry; Los Alamos (Museum Ludwig in Cologne, 2003), a showcase of William Eggleston's trip through the American Southwest; and I Am a Camera: The Saatchi Gallery (Booth-Clibborn, 2001), a definitive tour through the artists Charles Saatchi has so brilliantly collected. Meyerowitz also recommended anything and everything written by John Szarkowski, director emeritus of MoMA's photography department.

Robert Donnelly, an architect working for Rem Koolhaas's firm, OMA, led me to titles such as S, M, L, XL (Monacelli Press, 1997) and Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (Monacelli reprint, 1997). He also turned me on to Phyllis Lambert's Mies in America (Harry N. Abrams, 2001) and Antonio Roman's Eero Saarinen: An Architecture of Multiplicity (Princeton Arch, 2003) as well as Mies in Berlin (Museum of Modern Art, 2001).

Through the help of Lisa Bernhard, a buyer at Ursus Books, the Manhattan art-book dealer, I learned the names of the publishing houses that anyone following the contemporary art market should know: Phaidon, Taschen, Harry N. Abrams, and all the museum presses, which produce the most beautiful exhibit catalogues. With all the art books selected—and numbering just under 1,000 titles—I was ready to tackle the classics. But then I hit a wall: How could I form a unique collection based solely on an assortment of well-known titles? I mentioned my concern to Luke Pontifell, whose company, Thornwillow Press, crafts beautiful custom bindings. It was Pontifell who introduced me to the concept of extra-illustration.

A book is extra-illustrated when new editorial materials, such as a letter, poem, or manuscript page, are custom-bound along with the text. This allows the collector to make each volume unique and provides the means to personalize what otherwise might appear to be a commodity (Is that the same House of Mirth we have at our place?).

This, I realized—while pairing a first-edition Heart of Darkness with a recut DVD of Apocalypse Now—was the ideal way to put a contemporary spin on the club's book collection. Taking the concept even further, I asked a number of authors to write brief introductions for, or responses to, the works I selected. For instance, contemporary poet Adam Kirsch contributed commentary to be placed alongside a signed galley of James Merrill's Collected Novels and Plays (Knopf, 2002).

When the first edition of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (Faber and Faber, 2003) arrived from the United Kingdom, I flipped through its pages and found a mix of play reviews, essays, and author biographies assembled by the previous owner.

Clearly, personalizing individual volumes isn't a radical concept. Rather, extra-illustration is a means of enhancing the very personal choices that make every library unique.

News, Notes, and Decorative Ideas for the Bibliophile

1 Public Libraries: New Editions and Renovated ClassicsA Cubist painting come to life, the translucent glass-and-steel Seattle Central Library, which opened in May 2004, was codesigned by Dutch superstar architect Rem Koolhaas.

Foster and Partners' new library for the Free University in Berlin is a bubblelike aluminum-and-glass structure (think Jiffy Pop pan, post pop) designed for optimum energy efficiency.

After a $5 million restoration project, the New York Public Library recently reopened the doors to Room 117, the Beaux-Arts home to some of the world's rarest and oldest maps.

Reopened this April, New York's Morgan Library now has three glass buildings by Renzo Piano to link the original Morgan mansion, 1906 library, and 1928 Annex.

2 Shelf Life
Stylish accessories for your library
Humidity gage, $160; Light Impressions, 800-828-6216
Onyx globe, $225; the Conran Shop, 866-755-9079
Custom-designed bookplates, $750 a set; Thornwillow Press, 845-569-8883
Molière bust, $7,500; Moss, 866-888-6677
Atlas Maior, $200; Taschen,
Boite Livres, by special order; Louis Vuitton, 866-884-8866
Acerbis bookshelf, $5,500; M2L Collection, 800-319-8222
Bibliotheque wallpaper, price upon request; Brunschwig & Fils, 212-838-7878
Stepladder, $320; Kartell, 866-854-8823
Philippe Starck Archimoon lamp, $635; Flos, 800-939-35673

3 Off the Page
A Catalogue of Literary Causes and Events
Literacy Partners—The New York Post's eminent columnist Liz Smith is the honorary chairman of this Manhattan-based nonprofit, whose central mission is teaching English-speaking adults to read.

PEN American Center—The largest chapter of the oldest international literary organization advocates for imprisoned writers and backs inner-city literacy efforts.

The International Literacy Network—These are 21 groups, among them the American Library Association and UNICEF, bound by a mission to spread global literacy.

The Guardian Hay Festival—Ten days devoted to literature in this tiny Welsh town that's home to 39 bookshops. May 26–June 4; Hay-on-Wye, Wales;

Parati International Literary Festival—Come August, the small but charming Brazilian town of Parati morphs into a literary hot spot.

Edinburgh International Book Festival—Featuring more than 650 events, it's the literary equivalent of Edinburgh's jazz, fringe, a nd film festivals. August 12–28;

L.A. Times Festival of Books—A West Coast mix of authors, exhibitors, and book fans who gather at UCLA on the last weekend of April.

International Festival of Authors—One of the most prestigious gatherings of the global literati. October 18–28; Toronto;

4 Too Valuable for Words
The most sought-after first editions of 19th- and 20th-century fiction
THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain (1885), $200,000
Unique feature: The author's own copy

ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by Lewis Carroll (1866), $150,000
Unique feature: First complete edition, signed by writer

THREE STORIES AND TEN POEMS by Ernest Hemingway (1923), $125,000
Unique feature: Inscribed by the author to Edward J. O'Brien, editor of The Best American Short Stories

THE THREE MUSKETEERS by Alexandre Dumas (1844), $150,000
Unique feature: First edition with original wrappers

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925), $115,000
Unique feature: One with slight markings sold for $115,000. A perfect copy might fetch as much as $150,000.

A WINTER SHIP by Sylvia Plath (1960), $100,000
Unique feature: The writer's first book, inscribed by both her and her husband, Ted Hughes, to Plath's mother, Aurelia, for Christmas

TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934), $85,000
Unique feature: This copy is inscribed to a fellow Hollywood screenwriter.

THE RAINBOW by D. H. Lawrence (1915), $55,000
Unique feature: The author's own copy, bearing his signature and bookplate

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee (1960), $28,000
Unique feature: Signed "Best Wishes, Harper Lee," with an additional small note in which Lee writes that she very rarely autographs books

ULYSSES by James Joyce (1922), $50,000
Unique feature: Banned in the United States until 1934, this first edition is from a limited run first printed in France.

For a comprehensive list of upcoming book fairs, contact Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America at 212-944-8291 or

MOST EXPENSIVE book collection sold at Christie's: $43,383,833 for the Estelle Doheny Library

PRICIEST printed book sold at Christie's: $8,820,500 for The Birds of America, from original drawings, John James Audubon

COSTLIEST manuscript sold at Christie's: $30,802,500 for Codex Hammer, Leonardo da Vinci