For want of better words

Brian Turner discovers mediaeval treasures, pithy dictums and mischevious desire on a tour of the world's great libraries.

A BOOK, like an antique map, often inspires a biblio-trip - Jane Austen's Bath or Don Quixote's La Mancha.

But hardcore bibliophiles take their obsession seriously - the book itself is the artwork and biblio-destinations are the world's great libraries: public, private, mediaeval or modern.

The following are seven pilgrimage-status libraries.

Montaigne's Tower

In 1571 Michel de Montaigne, aged 38, retired from public life to his towered library to invent the essay. Over the next decade he perfected the new genre with his exuberant essais (literally "attempts") on life, the intelligence of his cat, friendship and odd smells. Set among vistas of embroidered vineyards 50 kilometres east of Bordeaux, France, Chateau de Montaigne and his original library tower are a shrine for passionate admirers.

His books, however, are absent - most are in Cambridge and Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale. Instead the visitor has 46 favourite Latin and Greek dictums Montaigne inscribed on his library beams: "How great is the worthlessness of things"; "The only certainty is that nothing is certain" and "All is vanity".

Bedtime reading Visit the chateau's winery and save a bottle for reading Saul Frampton's When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life.

Opening hours


Pepys' Library

Seventeenth-century diarist, bibliophile and secretary of the Admiralty Samuel Pepys believed "height", without concession to author or subject, was the primary factor in book arrangement and exactly 3000 books the ideal number for a gentleman's library. Standing in impeccably level rows, titles were also cross-indexed and catalogued so even Pepys's "footman could ... lay his finger on any of 'em blindfold".

Like the ships he commissioned, Pepys had his 12 glazed bookcases made of oak, which, with his books (including early Caxtons, his diaries and Newton's Principia Mathematica) may be viewed in Magdalene College, Cambridge, England, - a sight to raise the biblio-lust of any bookworm. Pepys understood excess of desire; his diaries reveal a private life that would embarrass Berlusconi, such as feeling up "a pretty modest maid" in church.

Bedtime reading Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys; lapsed bibliophiles can subscribe to a daily diary download at

Opening hours

Hereford Cathedral

The cathedral at Hereford (three hours by train from London) dates back to Norman times and possesses one of Europe's oldest and most intact chained libraries. Its oldest book, a ninth-century gospel, and several hundred others were collected in the 1100s; to deter mediaeval biblioklepts the irreplaceable volumes sat chained like galley slaves, fore-edge out, on bookshelves, to be lifted down and read on a lectern below. The chained volumes on their 16th century shelves are now housed and viewed in a climate-controlled room.

The cathedral's other treasure is the Mappa Mundi, a sumptuously illustrated 13th-century vellum map charting the mediaeval world view: Paradise at the top, Jerusalem in the centre, with Adam and Eve, saints, sirens and mythical monsters prowling its perimeters.

Bedtime reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Added value Hire a car to drive to the Gladstone Residential Library via the eccentric "booktown" Hay-on-Wye: with 30 specialist bookshops and a self-appointed king.

Gladstone Residential Library

Victorian-era British PM and bibliophile W.E. Gladstone was fixated with order in his massive book collection. Retiring after 60 years in Parliament, the 82-year-old wheelbarrowed most of his 30,000 books a quarter of a mile to his local village, Hawarden, North Wales, "to bring together readers who had no books and books who had no readers" to bequeath his "residential library".

The imposing late Victorian building - one wing housing Gladstone's library of annotated books and the other accommodating visiting readers - was completed after his death. Seated in plush leather in front of the drawing-room fire, sipping port and chatting with other guests in its cosy BBC set ambience, I half expected Miss Marple to enter announcing "the vicar has been found dead in his rose garden, stay calm, the Inspector is on his way".

Bedtime reading Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library.

Details and reservations Single room with dinner, bed and breakfast starts at £35 ($54). +44 1244 532350,

Trinity College

In the heart of Dublin, the Trinity College library goes back to the college's 1592 establishment. The "must-see" Book of Kells, written and decorated by Celtic monks in the ninth century, is on permanent display in the Old Library building. Then proceed upstairs to the barrel-vaulted Long Room for a Borgesian dream-like vista of 200,000 of the library's oldest books, on shelves seemingly disappearing into infinity.

Bedtime reading The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy. Trinity College student Sebastian Dangerfield's quest through the sexual terra incognita of 1940s Dublin.

Details +353 1 8962320;

Strahov Monastery

Overlooking Prague in the Czech Republic and founded in 1143, Strahov Monastery has two stunning library halls: the Baroque era Theological Hall and the 1797 neo-classical style Philosophical Hall. Both have glittering gold titles on leather spines on floor-to-ceiling walnut shelving, terrestrial and astronomical globes, a parquetry floor and ceiling frescoes depicting subjects from Noah to a dejected huddle of French encyclopaedists (with admirable impartiality, their book is in the collection). During the Communist era the monastery became the bleak Museum of National Literature but reverted after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Bedtime reading Prague Farewell, Heda Kovaly.

Recommended Bibliophiles guided tour in English, reservations necessary, +420 233 107 749,

Folger Shakespeare Library

Two blocks west of Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, this library holds nearly 80 of the surviving 232 Shakespeare First Folios (printed 1623). Exhibitions have much ado about Bardolatry, forgery, Will's portraits and capricious fates of lost, stolen and recovered Folios.

Bedtime reading Chris Adrian's The Great Night - on a midsummer's night faeries and mortals have surreal encounters in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park.

Exhibition details +1 202 544 4600,