I’m on book tour right now for I’d Rather Be Reading, which means that I get to visit a bunch of cool cities … but don’t have time to actually see them.
It’s not as bad as all that: I do get to see the bookstores, and when I travel the bookstores are always high-priority stops. But as for the rest of the city, if I get to see one quick thing and eat one good meal I’m doing great.
But last week the stars aligned, and I got to spend TWO NIGHTS—in a row! in the same hotel!—in Asheville, North Carolina.
I’d visited Asheville once before, and was thrilled to return. Last time my family hiked in Pisgah and visited Biltmore (all decked out for Christmas, though it was only the first weekend in November). This time, my assistant and I intended to bypass the forest and the estate and spend our time downtown—walking, bookstore browsing, eating.
But. Everyone kept telling us how amazing the current Chihuly exhibit was, using words like once-in-a-lifetime. And the forecast went from stormy to sunny. We started to second guess ourselves.
The concierge told us the Biltmore gates were just 8 minutes away, and we could certainly see quite a bit in one afternoon.
We caved, and bought our tickets.
Last time I visited Biltmore, my level of plant-obsession was not quite as high as it is now; we sped through the house to make time for the grounds. But we couldn’t help lingering in two places: the loggia for its Blue Ridge view, and the library. Of course.
George Vanderbilt took reading seriously, and his two-story personal library (plus his private reading room that’s off-limits to tourists, blast it all) holds some 22,000 titles.
According to Biltmore historians, the man sometimes read one to two books a day. (Oh, to be loaded and at leisure, eh?) And—this is the best part—he recorded them all, from the age of twelve, in a series of journals.
Apologies for the terrible photo above; I was clearly too giddy to hold the camera steady. But I wanted to show you what these journals look like. The cover is gold-embossed with the text “Books I Have Read,” with Vanderbilt’s initials.
In his journals, Vanderbilt kept a running tally of the books he had read. He opened the pictured journal in May 1913 with book #3085, The Brothers Karamazov, noting the author and translator.
His final journal ends with book #3159, History of the U.S., 3rd volume, the last he read before his death in March 1914.
At Biltmore, it’s easy to be impressed by the grandeur of the place. But I was struck by this simple journal.
In the title essay of I’d Rather Be Reading, I tell the story of how a serious case of book envy inspired me to begin my own reading journal. I’ve been faithfully recording my books for years now. My system is unfussy, yet I’m grateful for my preserved reading history, and continue to be surprised at how the act of logging my books has transformed my reading life.
Here’s a quote:
We are readers. Books grace our shelves and fill our homes with beauty; they dwell in our minds and occupy our thoughts. Books prompt us to spend pleasant hours alone and connect us with fellow readers. They invite us to escape into their pages for an afternoon, and they inspire us to reimagine our lives. Good reading journals provide glimpses of how we’ve spent our days, and they tell the story of our lives.
I’m fond of my own journals, but unexpectedly—because who gets practical ideas from the Vanderbilts?—I’m now inspired to tweak my system. Perhaps a running tally would make me twitchy, but right now I love the sound of giving it a try.
After we finished swooning over the library, we took our time wandering through the gardens and conservatory, which was heaven for this plant lady.
We visited Biltmore during the day, so we didn’t experience the full effect of the Chihuly glass, intended to be viewed at night. But this float boat still blew my mind. It was so gorgeous in the North Carolina sun.
Readers, I hope September is treating you well so far. It’s been incredible to meet so many of you on book tour, and I’m looking forward to meeting many more of you. (Click here for info on upcoming book tour dates.)
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Biltmore, Chihuly, and reading journals in comments.
P.S. For your TBR: My visit to Biltmore has me itching to re-read Witold Rybczynski’s excellent book A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th century, which, despite the dry title, I found utterly absorbing. Denise Kiernan’s The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home is a thoroughly-researched exploration of the house and the people who lived in it.
After visiting Asheville, I’m re-listening to Episode 108 of What Should I Read Next?, live from Malaprops Bookstore. Listen right on the site or wherever you get your podcasts.
And I touch here on my newish philosophy of spending out for the main attraction, plus share a little more about the Biltmore library.