Vulcan’s Peak

Browsing John Adams’ Library

January 31, 2007 11:40 am

Two Fridays ago I had an open afternoon between a morning in payroll and a late afternoon staff meeting for my new lab assistant job. To pass the time, I wandered into John Adams’ library.

I had passed the main branch of the Boston Public Library on several occaisions because it’s within easy walking distance of the college, but never gone in before. It is, in fact, two large buildings. The first door I opened led to a grand old space with stone lions and Classical figures painted on the walls. I briefly wandered around with my jaw open and a nagging sense that I wasn’t really supposed to be there, eventually figuring out that it holds only the non-circulating research and reference sections. Eventually I made my way into the Johnson building, which is built in the style we might call Mid-Twentieth Century Ugly (you could say Utilitarian if you think that’s harsh), and houses everything that normal people expect to find in a three-story library. But before I got there, I wandered into a temporary exhibit called John Adams Unbound.

The focus of the exhibit was a wall of books: Adams’ personal library. Fascinating to see the great variation in size — some books wouldn’t be out of place in a row of paperbacks, but his collected works of Locke would compare favorably with my parent’s largest atlas.

And here’s a did-you-know: Adams wrote in the margins. Everything from memos to snarky comments to long critiques of the author’s argument. Of the books along the wall (most of them; a handful were displayed in glass cases), ones with Adams’ annotations were marked with a gold ribbon. You could get a sense for what he read most carefully and was most interested by which books had the ribbons. Locke and Aristotle are no surprise. Did you know he loved Don Quixote?

The glass cases displayed open books and had all the museum-requisite discriptions and explanations. Though it was well done, I never could figure out which direction I was meant to go around the room, which bothered me — the cases were done by category and while there was some chronological logic to it, I always felt that I was going the wrong direction, even after I turned around to try going the other way. At any rate, what most interested me was what he had written on some of these pages.

One favorite of mine was a book open to a section about the religion of the ancient Egyptians. One page had diagrams of a procession and Adams’ comment was “This is religion? Good God!” A far cry from white New England churches! — and he was not a narrow-minded man. It made me laugh.

I loved this one too, for different reasons. Page 78 of Observations on Modern Gardening by Thomas Whately has this tucked neatly into the left-hand margin:
Blenheim, which
I saw in Apr. 1786
with Th Jefferson.

Blenheim Palace is the estate of the Duke of Marlborough, and it makes the Biltmore House look cozy. Adams and Jefferson saw it together. I’ve been there too. (So have a million of other people and I don’t care.) But I like that I can picture them there — and whatever the faults of each, they’re both figures I respect very much.

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