"It is a pathetic fact," wrote Samuel Boardman in 1900. Mr. Talcott wanted to keep the books in his library warm and dry as winter approached, "and it was in persisting to build a fire in the room on an inclement day that he took the cold that brought on his death."
As soon as there were books, there were private libraries, each as unique to its owner as a fingerprint. But book collectors throughout history share one characteristic: They're highly opinionated about how a library should look and what should be in it.
An Ideal Number
In the 1600s, the English diarist Samuel Pepys believed a gentleman should own exactly 3,000 books. In his library, books were numbered from the smallest size to the largest. To make the tops of the books even on the shelves, he built little wooden stilts for the short books, camouflaging the stilts to match the bindings.
The library of the 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz reportedly contained books by only nine writers, all from ancient Greece and Rome. Sir Thomas Phillipps, on the other hand, had 100,000 books in his collection and 60,000 manuscripts. When he moved them in 1864, he needed more than 100 horse-drawn carts and 160 laborers.
The question of which books belong in a small home library was warmly debated in early 20th-century America. The Bible, a dictionary, an atlas and Shakespeare were almost universally prescribed. Dr. Charles Eliot, then president of Harvard University, said in 1909 that he could put together "five feet of books" -- 25 books -- that "will give any man the essentials of a liberal education" in 10 minutes a day. It included Goethe's Faust and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.
Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was in the "model library" of 500 books assembled by the St. Louis Public Library in 1921. "It provoked adverse comment," reported a librarian in The Library Journal, with "several visitors declaring, 'Books like that nobody reads, and why should they be in a private library?' "
Unsuitable books can corrupt a library -- and its readers. In a 1916 copy of The Journal of Home Economics, young women were told, "Be sure to avoid immoral books -- those which make a direct appeal to our lower nature." If nothing else, don't let them fall into innocent hands: "Lock up your Rabelais and perhaps even your Fielding, where little fingers may not happen upon them," wrote Arthur Penn in The Home Library, published in 1883.
When not making war, Napoleon was a big reader. He traveled with a field library of books, which eventually consisted of about 40 volumes about religion, 40 of epics, 60 of poetry, 100 novels, 60 histories and some historical memoirs.
Henry M. Stanley took an estimated 180 pounds of books with him when he explored Africa in the 1870s. "As my men lessened in numbers, stricken by famine, fighting and sickness, one by one the books were reluctantly thrown away," Mr. Stanley wrote. Near the end of his journey, he had only a few left, including the Bible, Shakespeare and the Nautical Almanac for 1877. "Poor Shakespeare was afterward burned by demand of the foolish people of Zinga."
For an African safari in 1909, Theodore Roosevelt brought, or had sent to him, a "pigskin library" (the books were bound in pigskin to protect them from the elements). It included Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Thomas Carlyle's Frederick the Great. "Often my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I had killed," Mr. Roosevelt wrote in African Game Trails.
Mr. Roosevelt, like other presidents, took his library with him when he left the White House. To create a permanent library, the American Booksellers Association in 1930 presented Herbert Hoover with 500 books selected as a model home library. It included 20 detective novels and such forgotten classics as Zona Gale's Miss Lulu Bett.
Whether to Read
For some bibliophiles, the merits of the content are irrelevant: They judge books by their covers. An often-told tale has a collector, a Mr. Locker, taking a rare book with a small imperfection back to a binder. The binder examined the faulty cover and then, looking over his spectacles, said reproachfully, "Why Mr. Locker, you've been reading it."
Shelf LifeLibraryThing is a Web site where more than 400,000 bibliophiles list the books in their personal libraries. Here is what's on their shelves:
76,909 Number of William Shakespeare books listed
135,986 Number of Stephen King books
2.5 to 1 Ratio of Agatha Christie to Leo Tolstoy books
6,059 Number of people who list the Bible in their libraries
1,426 Number who list Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great
4.19 Average user rating of James Joyce's Ulysses (out of five)
4.89 Average rating of Bill Watterson's The Complete Calvin and Hobbes