When my husband and I were in Sweden last month, he wanted to see the Stockholm Public Library. Years ago, in architecture school, he’d read about the architect, Gunnar Asplund, and he vaguely remembered that the building was supposed to have a spectacular interior. It was a pretty day and I was happy to walk there with him. We stood outside the building. Completed in 1928, it is monumental but modest, a cylinder on top of a square base. We remarked on how democratic it is, with its plinth of street-level storefronts that include a McDonald’s and a convenience store. Then we went up the ramp, in through the front door, and up a narrow dark stairway into the main space, which was flooded with light. We stood there. After a while I realized I was crying.
We were inside the cylinder. It was a vast round room about 85 feet across and 80 feet high, and it was entirely lined with books, three floors of bookshelves, wrapping all around. There was a kind of visual randomness and individuality to the volumes, a jumble of colors and sizes, but there was also unity. Together they made an artwork: a gigantic, glowing, abstract composition that was alluring and alive.
For the next hour or so we walked around inside the library, visiting the reading rooms around the periphery, climbing up and down the exposed and hidden staircases connecting the three floors of books, finding secret spaces like the poetry rooms whose curves were tucked between the building’s inner and outer walls. We admired the details: the carved woodwork; Asplund’s simple, elegant furniture; the dreamlike mural and scaled-down intimacy of the children’s room.
But we kept returning to that central space. I’ve never been in a building that was so utterly, and solely, about books. It almost seemed to be made of books, as if the books were holding up the building, rather than the other way around. Asplund’s concept was inspired by the new open-stacks model he saw when he toured American public libraries. Yet while his design made the books accessible, it also exalted them. The building, with its circle-on-a-square shape and its domed rotunda, is a modernist riff on the Pantheon. This allusion to ancient Rome reflects more than just the architect’s admiration for classical temples. The Stockholm Public Library is a temple too, and the deity is literature.
And that, really, was what moved me to tears. I was like the lifelong baseball fan who grows misty in Cooperstown, or the country music fan wiping her eyes in the Grand Old Opry, or the English teacher or actor weeping in the Globe Theatre. It was relief. It was coming home, even though I was 3,500 miles away from home and most of the books were in Swedish. It was being in the place where the thing that matters to you really matters.
As readers, each of us has a personal pantheon made up of all the books we’ve read and loved, or been shocked or turned on or scared or amused or educated or moved by. Standing there, I thought that the library’s vast encircling bands of books were like a metaphor for that individual, private pantheon — the books we read over the course of a lifetime, which help form our consciousness of ourselves, other people, and the world. At the same time, the space was moving to me as a writer. It reminded me that every book is part of a greater whole, and that all the varied tastes of readers and the various voices of writers jumble together over time to create something that, if not infinite, is certainly inexhaustible.
My husband and I agreed we’d never seen a building that so perfectly expressed what it was about. It must have stunned people when it opened in 1928, and it’s stunning now. At a time when publishing and libraries and printed books are debated — do we need them any more? — with a kind of earnest obtuseness both discouraging and irrelevant to people who are passionate about reading and writing, here is a place where the book is, quietly, gorgeously, literally, central.