Not every day of every vacation can guarantee blue skies and 75 degree temperatures. So what to do, oh book lover, when it’s 110 degrees in the shade or raining cats and dogs? When the line for the museum is too long, why not head to a library—our fine nation boasts a plethora of wonderful repositories, both architecturally stunning and filled with that thing you love above all else: a good book.
Morgan Library NYC
Though many associate New York with its extraordinary public library on 5th Avenue, watched over as it is by the two enormous stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, it is not the last word in homes for books in the Big Apple. Though its reading room is one of the most extraordinary public spaces in the entire city, we prefer the filigree beauty of the Morgan Library. Once you’re done with E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime—some of which is set in the library— Ron Chernow’sbiography of the Morgan family, The House of Morgan, will nicely set the scene for your visit. Originally Pierpont Morgan’s personal library, the Morgan was gifted to New York by his son in 1924, and since then has gained a reputation for its serenity, its collections and regular exhibitions such as Charlotte Bronte manuscripts and the original jottings that became Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
The Seattle Central Library opened to much fanfare in 2004, and since then has become a favorite of locals and visitors alike—more than 2 million people visited the first year, with nearly a third of them out-of-towners. This monolith of glass and steel has had its detractors, but at least one person has a positive view of it: In Where’d You Go Bernadette, the title character’s mental breakdown is momentarily arrested by Rem Koolhaus’ cool “house.”
Baltimore architect Edmund G. Lind’s breathtaking interior for the George Peabody Library in Baltimore, MD, truly helps the place earn its nickname “the cathedral of books.” This 19th-century wonder opened in 1878 and has since helped to educate many millions of Baltimore inhabitants, during its heyday as one of the world’s busiest ports until now, as the city pulls itself out of economic turmoil and urban blight. David Simon and Ed Burns’ account of the latter, The Corner, recounts the drug trade of the late 1990s, centered as it was around the intersection of West Fayette and Monroe Streets, a mere two miles west of the famed library.
Bertram Goodhue’s Beaux Arts creation in downtown Los Angeles opened in 1926, and since that time has become a beacon of calm in the city’s urban whirlwind. The building is rightly famed for its friezes, including one in the International Languages Department that sets out the story of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. His 1820 novel turned readers on to the medieval world, an obsession that continues unabated to this day (this means you, George R.R. Martin).
Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York
One of the most beautiful college libraries in the United States lies in otherwise-dingy Poughkeepsie, at Vassar College. This Francis Allen and Charles Cohen-designed Gothic masterpiece is replete with castle-like ornaments and a famed stained-glass window featuring Elena Cornaro Piscopia, said to be the first woman to receive a D. Phil in Europe (in 1678, no less). This theme of the importance of women’s education continues at Vassar to this day, and it was always thus: Mary McCarthy’s(Vassar class of 1933) satirical novel The Group, published in 1963 to much critical commentary (it was banned in Australia, of all places) and which enjoyed two years on the bestseller lists, follows one such set of eight Vassar graduates as they head out into the world. (Fun facts: Candace Bushnellwas said to have used The Group as inspiration for her Sex and the City saga; Betty Draper reads the book in Series 3 of Mad Men.)
This article was updated on September 23, 2014