3,159 books and inspiration from an unlikely source

3,159 books and inspiration from an unlikely source

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.

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66 comments

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  1. Meghan says:

    You’ve inspired me to start my own book journal now! I am just starting to become a (house)plant lady, thanks in part to things you’ve posted about fiddle-leaf figs and Chinese money plants. What other house plants do you recommend?

  2. Kate says:

    I visited the Biltmore in April with my mom and sister and it was AMAZING!!! They were just starting to set up the installations for the Chihuly exhibit so we didn’t get to see any actual glass. My mom, sister, and I are all gardeners and one of the things that floored us inside the house were the show-stopping floral arrangements in every single room upstairs. They were so stunning.

    I hope to go back there during the Christmas season with my husband at some point, but I’m sure fall would also be spectacular.

  3. Carrie says:

    The Biltmore is definitely impressive. I have only been at Christmas time-at night-in the rain, so haven’t ever had a chance to see the grounds. (unfortunate because I love gardens-if a city has a botanical garden or an estate with large grounds I always go!) I remember falling in love with the library. Somehow I missed the book journals, though. Perhaps because there were too many people around?? My book journal is definitely simple in comparison. I have no idea the total number of books read so far in my life. I wish I had thought of recording them sooner, too! Thank you for sharing your visit with us.

  4. Sarah M says:

    I’ve kept a reading journal for years. And I have this ridiculous rule that I can’t write the book in there until I finished it, so nothing gets written that I left aside….the makings of a perfectionist ‘finisher’.
    I recently went to the Chiluly museum in Seattle Center and it was amazing! I thought the ticket prices were high but went with a friend and even though the museum is fairly small, it was incredible. I’d have probably paid double!

  5. Bonnie says:

    I saw the Chihuly exhibit in the hot June sun–the sculptures are fascinating! If you can get there during the summer, kids’ tickets are free.

    Have you read “Serafina and the Black Cloak”? It’s a fun read for middle grades/YA that takes place on the grounds of Biltmore. There are 2 more books in the series, but I haven’t gotten around to them yet.

    I loved the library, but somehow missed the book journal. I don’t personally keep a reading journal, unless Goodreads counts! I love going back through my yearly tags to see what I read in previous years 🙂

    • Tif says:

      Coming here to say 2 things:
      1. Goodreads for sure counts in my book! The idea of keeping it all in a journal is overwhelming to me right now, but I adore looking back at Goodreads over the last few years. And so satisfying to mark a book “READ” and review from my phone!
      2. Adding “Serafina” to my TBR list for my boys right now. Thx for the rec! I visited the Biltmore with girlfriends from Michigan last year, but would love to take my family back during Christmas.

  6. When I lived in Charlotte for a year, I got an annual pass to the Biltmore and visited it 4 times but I still didn’t see it all between those 4 visits. It’s truly a sight to be seen! 2 of my 4 times I didn’t even go into the house and instead focused on the expansive grounds. It’s such a cool place to visit and well-worth the hefty admission ticket price.

    My reading it completely tracked digitally on goodreads but this post makes me think I should start my very own book journal. My grandfather had a large library of books and after he finished a book, he would write the date, where he got the book and a sentence summing up his thoughts on the book. I loved going through his library after he passed and reading his reflections, but as a minimalist, I know I’ll never leave behind a library of books for the next generation. It makes me sad to think about that but we live in a small space that just doesn’t have the room for all the great books I’ve read and will read in years to come. But a journal is a great solution to this! Plus I could be more honest about my true thoughts on books than I sometimes am on goodreads!

  7. I’ve thought about keeping a book journal to record what I’ve read and what I’ve thought…but then I discovered Goodreads! Pretty big thing for me to use an electronic alternative when there’s a paper one; I’m a “print books/paper planner for life!” kinda gal. And, I know that my reading log could disappear at a moment’s notice should Goodreads go under, but I’m seriously hoping that doesn’t happen! I love being able to log what books I’ve read and also want to read. I love that Vanderbilt was doing this so methodically during his time, in his own way.

    And, I REALLY love that he read 1-2 books PER DAY. As you said, oh to be rich and at one’s leisure. 🙂 #thedreamofbibliophileseverywhere

  8. Donna Darlage says:

    I love Biltmore and have been there several times. I am also fascinated by Chihuly. I live in Indianapolis and our Children’s Museum has a Chihuly that I think is 4 stores high and you can go underneath it and look up and see the shells, balls and all manner of objects. Love it!
    You have made me homesick to go back for a visit…no, I’m not from there, but I always feel a bit homesick when I see the wonderful building and gardens.
    Also, I could live in the library! Oh, the wishes I have made in that room. I believe you could stay in that room for days and never discover everything!!
    Thanks you so very much for bringing me fond memories this morning!!

  9. Christy says:

    I am currently reading The Last Castle after visiting The Biltmore for the second time. I am in love! We did get to see the Chiluly display and it was gorgeous. We are going back in two weeks. I can not wait!

  10. Brandy says:

    I’m so jealous of your experience with the journals! I want to keep a list of the books I read with a little ‘review’ or summary, but I always get lazy after about the third book. I use Goodreads, but I like Vanderbilt’s simple way of keeping track. I may give that a try!

    I’m obsessed with that Biltmore library, too. I usually have to be dragged out of it, but the last couple of times I’ve visited, I didn’t even go inside. I spent whole days in the gardens and hiking trails. I love flowers, but I can’t raise a plant to save my life. The gardens there inspire me every time to give it another chance.

  11. Aimee says:

    I read the first book of the Serafina series out loud to my class every year and they love it! We look at pictures of the actual estate, and they love the idea of spooky happenings in a building they can still visit today!

  12. Chihuly is my favorite. And we’ve been to the Biltmore 3 times now. I’d love to go for the exhibit, but I don’t think that will happen.

    About reading logs…I was inspired to start mine after reading, “I’d Rather be Reading.” It’s a very simple system, like Vanderbilt’s. I was surprised that I’ve read 12 books in the month since I started recording. And that would be pretty normal for me.

  13. I started a simple book journal in 2005! It is fun to look back at what I read. As Anne wrote in her newest book, after I finish a book I don’t remember every detail, but if I can look back at the journal it helps jog my memory! Also – Dale Chihuly is a genius! He is from Seattle and I have visited there many times, I also wrote a post about the Chihuly Garden and Glass which is adjacent to the Space Needle. https://www.adventuresofemptynesters.com/seattle-a-visit-to-the-chihuly-garden-and-glass-will-take-your-breath-away/

  14. Joan Odean says:

    We live fifteen miles from The Biltmore and are annual pass holders. Living in a somewhat rural area without large museums, The Biltmore and its special events somewhat fills the gap.

  15. I have tried various reading journals. Listing them by date as I read them is great only for Reading Challenges. What really is better for me is to alphabetize the authors in a journal, so I can refer to the books I have read easily. And not reread them. I write all the A author books in the first three pages ( I need to expand my journal). those I have read are written in ink, and those recommended are written in pencil and written over in ink as I finish them. Annotate by date pub, read or recommendation name is also useful. I have separate reading journals for young readers’ book titles and adult book titles. My new love of Tul expandable journals will be the next set, but time consuming to re-write. Thanks for your inspiring post.

  16. I started a book journal earlier this year, but then my purse was stolen and I lost it. I haven’t started another one yet. But I definitely want to! As of right now, Goodreads is my book journal.

    So glad you got to see the Chihuly exhibit. He had an exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens a few years ago that was stunning. There are still a few permanent pieces. I would love to see his museum in Seattle!

  17. L Stohs says:

    This was perfectly timed. I am off to Asheville in 10 days and will be at the estate right at the end of the exhibit. I enjoyed the Chihuly exhibit in Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory nearly 20 years ago and am excited to see what they have done in Asheville.

    I have kept a book journal for much of my life, inspired mostly by those my mother has been keeping for all of her adult life. I still remember the spiral notebook sitting in it’s place on the bookshelf filled with lists of books she had read throughout the 70’s and 80’s.

  18. aquagirl809 says:

    I love the Biltmore House! I visited there about 20 years, not expecting much, but I was mesmerized. We spent the entire day, and I bought Biltmore china and a replica of the dining room table! I thought the library was warm, welcoming and very comfortable as well as very impressive. And Chihuly of one of my favorite artists. We’ve seen the Chihuly Museum in Seattle, and there was a lovely Chihuly collaboration at our St. Louis Botanical Garden a few years back. Some of Chihuly’s glass is now on permanent display in the garden here. Great post, because it includes all of my loves – reading, Chihuly and the Biltmore House (and of course you, Anne Bogel.)

  19. Sonya A Leonard says:

    Anne,

    I live in Asheville, a couple of miles from Biltmore AND have a season pass….have not been to see Chihuly. I know, I know.
    But, please tell me you went to Battery Park Book Exchange????? A must for any book lover passing through our amazing town. May I also recommend for your next visit, the NC Arboretum. Cheaper and a wonderful way to spend several hours.

  20. Bev says:

    Luckily, we visited the Biltmore when it was decorated for the holidays. We are Chihuly fans and have seen his installations in several states as we travel, most recently the magnificent works in Seattle and Tacoma.

    Mainly, I want to mention here that I have kept a reading log for nearly fifteen years, but in a different format. Mine is an Excel spreadsheet and came about when I purchased two books on a trip that, only a few pages into, I realized I had previously read. There are too many great books to waste time and money on that! I record books as I acquire them, noting that date in its column, and then enter the date I read them in its appropriate column. It is ordered by author last name in column one, author first name in column two, etc. but the beauty of a spreadsheet is that it can be sorted, you can search with key words, you can enter notes in yet another column, I have a column with a ‘K’ if I have it on my Kindle, it can be portable, etc. There are nearly endless ways to format your list to your liking.

    When I update the log, I gmail it to my phone. As we travel, my husband and I visit many independent and/or used book stores. My book log is always on my phone to check whether or not I already own a selection that catches my eye!

    • d says:

      I love keeping a Book Spreadsheet too! It can be organized by any column in the blink of an eye! It stores on your phone! It can be shared or kept to yourself! I can read through it at work and everyone thinks I’m working!

      I enter mine as I finish them, so chronologically, and then I filter for the year to see if I’m on goal with about a book a week. Just finished “Uprooted” (GREAT book) so it’s going in the journal today.

  21. Debi Morton says:

    The Biltmore is definitely on my Bucket List, and this post with its comments is making me want to go tomorrow. But since my house is currently full of packers, and tomorrow is closing day on our new home, I think that trip will have to wait!
    As to book journals, I tried and failed more than once. I finally figured out I was being too ambitious. I thorough online search uncovered the simplist book journal ever, and I’m delighted with it and finding it ever so easy to keep my books numbered and recorded. It’s not beautiful or gold embossed, but it works! If you’re interested, here’s the link
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1496199723?pf_rd_p=d1f45e03-8b73-4c9a-9beb-4819111bef9a&pf_rd_r=GQ9D6YBZWMH5FB2VX25K
    Scroll down to see other colors. I bought it in blue.

  22. I keep a spreadsheet, in conjunction with GoodReads. But after reading your book and this post, I believe I will need to up my game with a pretty journal. I love the Biltmore, but the basement really creeped me out. I’ve never been there at Christmas time, but it’s on my bucket list. A book a day is a dream life:). Teddy Roosevelt also read a book a day – in addition to being President and the father of six children!

  23. Carol DeHaven says:

    I visited the Biltmore on September 7th (for the night exhibit) and then again on the 8th for the house tour. I highly recommend the audio tour as it really explained the life and times of the Vanderbilts. The Chihuly Exhibit was breath taking!!

    I used to use a spreadsheet to log my books but am happy to have Goodreads…it definitely counts to me!

    I so enjoyed “I’d Rather Be Reading”! I chuckled through much of it saying…yes I agree!!

  24. Victoria says:

    After visiting Biltmore I purchased the book Lady on the Hill which is the story of the Biltmore estate and how much it was influenced by the stately homes in England. It was a fascinating read!!

  25. Hortensia Gomez-Tirella says:

    I was fortunate enough to visit The Biltmore Estate with my family in 2004. I loved it and hope to return one day. My 2 favorite parts were also the Loggia and the Library. I wished I could’ve been allowed to enter the library to look through the books and even sit and read for a while. Or I would have also loved to be able to sit on the Loggia with a good book and a glass of wine. Thank you for sharing! Oh, and I’m also inspired to start a book journal like Mr. Biltmore’s. I only wish I had thought to start a journal when I was 12!

  26. Glenda johnstone says:

    Reading journal. Umm.. have kept one off and on for years. I been trying to start a bullet journal of books. I had my list from my public library printed … it is 29 pages long of books I have read…. now what? I am paralyzed as to how to do this.

    • Ashley E says:

      Don’t make it too hard on yourself! I’d recommend just starting where you are now and keep it up going forward. If you ever feel inspired, you can work on recording books you’ve read in the past, but otherwise don’t worry about it.

  27. Marcia says:

    I read THE LAST CASTLE and loved it, well researched, great pictures. Since I had visited Biltmore and stayed on the grounds, made the book even more meaningful.

  28. I started using Goodreads a few years ago. Before that I kept a written list of the books I read. I wish now the list was annotated. Oh well. I read a variety of books, children’s and young adult mostly, and I like to think I am helping other school librarians try new books with their students too.

  29. Kara Middleton says:

    Amazing! I keep a running tally in my reading journal AND a monthly tally. Unfortunately I didn’t start doing it until last month, so I have no record of what I’ve read in the last 45+ years. Oh well, it’s fun anyway.

  30. Steph says:

    About 10 years ago, I passed on the opportunity to see Biltmore… what was I thinking?!?! Maybe I can blame it on young motherhood, ha!
    For my reading journal, I write the title, author, date read and a simple sentence. I start with the number one each January 1st to track books read for the year and then on December 31st I add the total number to my existing running total from years past.

  31. Mary in TN says:

    We saw Chihuly when it was at Cheekwood in Nashville. Interestingly, the pieces of glass for each sculpture are not numbered — they are assembled differently every time!

  32. Pat says:

    I do love The Biltmore and was last there last month.
    About 15 years ago, I started keeping a journal to record each book I read and my notes on that book. However, when I became a Goodreads member in 2012 I began to only record and comment there. Maybe I should do both and post of yours has me considering doing that.

  33. Vicki says:

    As an Asheville resident and relatively new follower of your blog- thoroughly enjoyed your conversation at one of my favorite places, Malaprops. Very entertaining. Looking forward to reading the book and it will make a great gift. Ditto the comment on visiting Battery Park Book Exchange and do have to recommend Chihully at night- exquisite!

  34. Hi Anne
    I have always wondered about a journal but once I got on Goodreads, it filled that role. What do you put in your journal about the books you read and are you also logging your books on Goodreads? Thank you

  35. SoCalLynn says:

    I just finished updating my book log for this year. I’ve never been a journal keeper or even a plain recorder. I just started keeping a good log this year, and I’m almost 56. I have a pretty good memory for what I’ve already read, but it would be amazing to see it all recorded! My family saw the Chihuly exhibit in Phoenix, AZ (we drove there from Los Angeles area for the weekend, just to see it) several years ago after I saw the PBS special about him. Ah.MAZE.ING!

  36. Donna says:

    I’m from Louisiana. My husband and I took a driving vacation to the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall of 2012. We stayed overnight in Asheville and toured The Biltmore House. We thoroughly enjoyed it!

    On another note, was your book tour affected by the storm?

    • Anne says:

      I’m so glad you got to experience it for yourself! The Blue Ridge Parkway is lovely in the fall.

      For book tour: my planned schedule put me just ahead of Florence. I was disappointed to miss many booksellers and authors who had been slated to attend the Southern Independent Booksellers event, but had their flights canceled, or worse, had to stay home to mitigate the damage.

  37. Serene says:

    I saw Chihuly in Pittsburgh at Phipps Conservatory and loved it! I was there during the day and don’t regret it. Nighttime might be magical but I love daylight. I’m fearful about a book journal — I know that there is a lot missing from my reading life and don’t want to have it emphasized by writing it down 🙂

  38. Marie says:

    We saw the exhibit indoors when it was at the AGO in Toronto a couple of years back. My kids and I loved it a lot but this outdoor installation looks amazing. What is the reference to the 3000 books all about? I missed it. Is that how many books you read last week? 🤷‍♀️😂

  39. CPRobin says:

    I have visited Biltmore once, and look forward to going again sometime. Just have to note that I’ve journaled my reading for about 10 years now, on the suggestion of a friend. I keep track of title, author, number of pages, hardbound or digital, and give a brief comment on the book. I have found in recent years its easier to keep on my iPad in Numbers (database). And I print it out at the end of the year to keep a hard copy in my personal journal. Fun to go back and see what I’ve read over the years. Certain authors tend to show up often on the list. Thanks for great suggestions! Will look for these for future reads!

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