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▫ Some 838 miles of shelves in three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., house the Library of Congress’ bounty of books and other materials. Visitors should head for the Thomas Jefferson Building, where a visual extravaganza awaits.

 The Library was initially located in a boarding house after its founding on April 24, 1800, and was later moved to the U.S. Capitol. Its first permanent building—bearing former president Jefferson’s moniker—opened in 1897, making it the oldest federal cultural institution in the country.

▫ Why does Jefferson have the honors? After British troops burned the Capitol building and destroyed the library’s core collection of 3,000 volumes, Congress approved the purchase of Jefferson’s personal library—6,487 books bought for $23,950. The volumes that Jefferson originally contributed are on display (southwest pavilion, second floor).

▫ A bibliophile could move in and be right at home in the dazzling, octagon-shaped Reading Room (photo top row, center). It’s spacious (several stories high); gorgeously decorated with golden-color marble columns, statues of writers, artists, and thinkers like Michelangelo and Shakespeare, and a Renaissance-style dome; and has plenty of reading material. The Reading Room can be viewed from an upper level platform called the Overlook. Standing behind a clear plastic partition takes away some of the grandeur, but it’s still an impressive sight.

▫ Let there be light. The library’s light bulb budget is $100,000 a year.

▫ Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, is one of the images adorning the Thomas Jefferson Building’s main chamber. The Great Hall soars 75 feet, rising from a marble floor to a stained glass ceiling. Take some time to soak up the splendor of the Great Hall. Look up, down, and sideways, or you’ll miss its nuances. Woven into the eye-catching display of mosaics, statues, paintings, and decorative details—some of it drawing on the Italian Renaissance style—are themes of literature, music, philosophy, education, and architecture, along with references to the zodiac and mythology and tributes to other countries.

▫ The Guttenberg Bible, on display in the Great Hall, is one of a three-volume set. To reduce wear and tear on the fragile documents, it’s changed out periodically—under armed guard.

▫ Size matters. The collection contains nearly 167 million items, making it the largest library in the world. Of those, 39 million are books (including Novel Destinations) and other printed materials. The rest are films, photos, prints, maps, manuscripts, and sheet music. About half of the books and serials are in languages other than English.

▫ Pick and choose. Every day the library receives 15,000 new items, approximately 12,000 of which are added to the collection.

▫ It’s well worth the time to take a free 60-minute, docent-led tour. It gives a fascinating, more in-depth perspective than strolling through the building on your own (I’ve done both). Learn about the library’s creation and collection, as well as its impressive architectural details. Tours are given several times daily Monday through Saturday, and there’s no need to reserve a spot. Even if 50 or 60 people show up, guides break tour-goers into smaller groups.

▫ Only members of Congress and their staff can check out books. The rest of us can view the digital collection online.

–Shannon McKenna Schmidt

My Antonía by Willa Cather – 100th Anniversary

Photo: visitredcloud.com

“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.” –My Antonía

Like Jim Burden, the narrator in My Antonía, a young Willa Cather moved from Virginia to the Nebraska prairie. Cather later lived in Pittsburgh and New York City (where she penned the novel) and traveled around the U.S. and Europe, but it’s with the Great Plains that she is most readily identified. In Red Cloud, Nebraska, the Willa Cather Foundation conducts tours of the author’s childhood home and other sites associated with her real and fictional worlds. In honor of the centennial of My Antonía’s publication, special events are taking place in Red Cloud and across the state through the fall and are listed at MyAntonia100.org.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – 150th Anniversary

A visit to Orchard House, the Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts, is like stepping into the pages of Little Women. Louisa May Alcott drew heavily on her family members and their home for the characters and the setting, and the storied abode remains largely as it did during their day.

Orchard House is open year-round and regularly offers interpretive tours, workshops for kids, holiday festivities, and more. Love for the March sisters and their story is universal, though, and readers around the world can celebrate at a wide array of exhibits and other happenings. Check out the list of events at LittleWomen150.org.

Emily Brontë’s 200th Birthday (July 30, 1818)

Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop,” Charlotte Brontë said of her sister Emily’s famed (and only) novel. The wild workshop was the dramatically scenic moorland around the village of Haworth in West Yorkshire, England. A several-mile walk on the moors leads past a waterfall the Brontës often visited and then on to Top Withens, the stone ruins of a remote farm credited as being the geographical setting of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s domain.

Visitors can also explore the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the beautifully restored Georgian parsonage where the wordsmiths lived and wrote. The museum is in the midst of a five-year bicentennial celebration, Brontë 200, which commemorates the 200th anniversaries of the births of siblings Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne Brontë. The new exhibit “Making Thunder Roar: Emily Brontë” showcases a selection of Emily’s possessions, writing, and artwork, along with contributions from well-known contemporary admirers of the novelist.

John Steinbeck – 50th Anniversary of His Death (December 20, 1968)

One of the most impressive literary shrines anywhere is the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, a purpose-built museum dedicated to John Steinbeck’s life and works. Thematic galleries with interactive exhibits, mini-theaters showing film adaptions of his novels, and unique features like an oversize, light-up crossword puzzle for testing one’s Steinbeck smarts make it both informative and entertaining.

The brick-and-glass building anchors one end of Main Street in the city’s Oldtown section, which is depicted in East of Eden. Use the Center’s interactive map to take a self-guided tour of Steinbeck-related sites in Oldtown, ending at the writer’s childhood home. Down the street from the National Steinbeck Center (which marks its 20th anniversary this year) is the Steinbeck House, a Queen Anne-style Victorian abode that has operated as a luncheon restaurant since 1974.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – 200th anniversary

At a villa in Switzerland during an unusually stormy summer, Lord Byron suggested to his housebound guests – Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley among them – that they each conjure up a horror tale to help pass the time. The winner of the friendly competition was Mary, who penned Frankenstein after dreaming the idea for the story.

The Keats-Shelley Association of America is spearheading an international celebration of Frankenstein‘s anniversary. Events are taking place throughout the year, culminating in “Frankenweek” from October 24-31. Worldwide events – such as book discussions, stage productions, film screenings, and full and partial readings of the novel (reciting the entire text takes about 9 hours) – are listed on Frankenreads.org. Also check in with bookstores, museums, libraries, and universities in your area to find out what Frankenstein-related fun they might be planning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The classic literary world includes some curious connections between scribes who lived decades, and sometimes centuries, apart.

Frederick Douglass and Charles Dickens

On the grounds of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., is a tiny stone cabin where Douglass retreated to read and write in solitude. He dubbed the one-room dwelling the “Growlery,” a termed coined by Charles Dickens in Bleak House. In the novel, Mr. Jarndyce speaks with his ward, Esther, in a small room filled with books and papers, boots and shoes, and hat-boxes. “This, you must know, is the Growlery. When I am out of humor, I come and growl here,” says Mr. Jarndyce. “When I am deceived or disappointed in—the wind, and it’s Easterly, I take refuge here. The Growlery is the best-used room in the house.”

Frederick Douglass’ “growlery,” or writing cabin. Photo: © NPS/Johnson.

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Interested in literary travel tales and trivia? Come hear Shannon speak about Novel Destinations at the New York Public Library’s 53rd Street branch in New York City on October 24 at 6:30 p.m.

This entertaining presentation features photographs of literary landmarks in the United States and Europe, stories about classic writers and the places that inspired them, and some of her own tales from the road. Six-toed cats, volcanoes, Edith Wharton’s library, and more!

Where: The New York Public Library, 18 W. 53rd Street, New York, NY.

When: Tuesday, October 24, 6:30 p.m. in the theater.

Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau’s milieu.

Put on your walking shoes and explore these eight literary trails, following in the footsteps of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jack London, and other writers in the landscapes where they lived, wrote, and found inspiration.

Brontë Waterfall and Top Withens Walk, Haworth, England
The dramatically scenic Yorkshire Moors, where Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights unfolds, is one of the most atmospheric places for a literary hike. A 2 ½-mile walk from the sisters’ former home, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, leads across heather-dotted hills to their favorite destination, a gentle waterfall and stream. Venture on a mile farther to see the ruins of an isolated farmhouse, Top Withens, credited as being the setting of Heathcliff’s domain in Wuthering Heights.

Dylan Thomas Trail, New Quay, Wales
“I walked on to the cliff path again, the town behind and below waking up now so very slowly,” Dylan Thomas wrote in the radio sketch “Quite Early One Morning.” In the Welsh town of New Quay, where the poet moved in 1944, the Dylan Thomas Trail traces the route along the coastal walkway above town he referenced. Other Thomas-related places in the city center are noted as well, like the restaurant and bar at the Black Lion Hotel—a perfect stop for a post-hike restorative.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond Walks, Concord, Massachusetts
Henry David Thoreau staked out a spot on a secluded piece of land near Walden Pond owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, living there for two years and turning out his most famous work, Walden. To reach the site where the naturalist’s one-room cabin once stood, take the Pond Path for a gorgeous view of the lake he described as “lying between the earth and the heavens.” Return via the Ridge Path through oak and pine woodlands where Louisa May Alcott and her sisters accompanied family friend Thoreau on nature walks. A replica of Thoreau’s abode can be seen near the Walden Pond State Reservation visitor center.

Jack London’s Beauty Ranch Trail, Glen Ellen, California
The adventure writer’s 1,400-acre Sonoma Valley ranch was situated on the site of a former winery and is now Jack London State Historic Park. The park’s trail network ranges from back country hikes to easily accessible pathways, including the Beauty Ranch Trail, which leads through the heart of London’s property past landmarks such as the cottage where he wrote many of his short stories and novels.

Millay Poetry Trail, Austerlitz, New York
Two years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 (the first woman to do so), Edna St. Vincent Millay and her husband bought a former blueberry farm they named Steepletop in rural eastern New York State. Along with touring the white clapboard farmhouse and sunken gardens landscaped by Millay, visitors can take a walk to the poet’s grave site along the Millay Poetry Trail, located in a forest dotted with white birch trees and signposted with excerpts from her nature poems.

Sir Walter Scott Way, Moffatt to Cockburnspath, Scotland
If you have several days and lots of stamina, this 92-mile cross-country walk winds through lowland valleys and sheep farms, over Borderland hills, and past lochs and rivers as it connects sites associated with novelist Sir Walter Scott’s life and work. Noteworthy stops along the way include the Tibbie Shiels Inn, a 19th-century stagecoach stop that has served up drams to Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Carlyle, and Abbotsford, the turreted, castle-like manor house Scott designed and filled with antique furnishings and historic relics like Rob Roy’s sword.

Stevenson Memorial Trail, Calistoga, California
While in the Napa Valley, newlyweds Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, ran low on money and left a hotel cottage for Silverado, an abandoned mining town. For two months in 1880 they lived in a ramshackle bunkhouse on the slopes of Mount St. Helena, an adventure Stevenson recounts in the memoir THE SILVERADO SQUATTERS. A 10-mile round trip hike in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park leads to the site where the couples’ cabin once stood. At the summit of the challenging trek, stunning views of the San Francisco Bay Area await.

Tennyson Trail, Isle of Wight, England
Lord Alfred Tennyson once said the salty sea air on this English Channel isle was “worth sixpence a pint.” Traverse the Tennyson Trail to emulate the poet, who took long morning walks each day on the isle, where he settled in 1853 and spent the last 40 years of his life. The 15-mile trail runs through forests and above chalky white cliffs with sweeping vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and mainland England.

A century ago, in 1917, bard William Butler Yeats purchased a 15th-century Norman tower in the Irish countryside as a summer home. “I shall make it habitable … It is certainly a beautiful place,” he informed his father.

For Yeats, Thoor Ballylee was “a place full of history and romance” that inspired some of his later masterful works, including “The Tower” and “The Winding Stair.” While today the abode—which has been prone to winter flooding due to its riverside location—is mostly devoid of decorations or furnishings, there is atmosphere aplenty in the four-story structure with a stone staircase winding through the tower and leading to a roof platform.

Thoor Ballylee is located in County Galway and best reached by car. For an off-the-beaten-path location, the tower sees plenty of activity. On the day I visited last summer, a local television station was filming a travel segment, and recent visitors had included the novelist Colum McCann and former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd.

In the now-restored dining room, the Yeats family would fish out the window, which opens above the Streamstown River.

Visitors can explore the tower at their leisure and also peruse some illustrated exhibits that shed light on Yeats’ personal and professional lives. One exhibit is devoted to the women who greatly influenced the wordsmith—like his wife, George Hyde-Lees, who feigned episodes of spirit-guided writing to prompt his poetry, and Maude Gonne, the unrequited love of his life.

Thoor Ballylee is open during the summer months and well worth a stop when literary traveling on the Emerald Isle.

The wine will be flowing tomorrow evening at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, a toast to coincide with the opening of the feature film A Quiet Passion. Sex and the City alum Cynthia Nixon plays the part of Emily Dickinson in this biopic about the intriguing and famously reclusive poet’s life.

The movie was primarily shot in Belgium, where a replica of the Dickinson family residence, The Homestead, was recreated. The actual abode, a 200-year-old yellow brick house in Amherst where Dickinson lived for all but 15 of her 55 years, features in exterior scenes in A Quiet Passion.

Visitors to the museum can tour The Homestead—including Dickinson’s bedroom, where she did much of her writing—as well as The Evergreens, an Italianate-style house next door that was built for her brother and his wife in 1856.

Summertime visits are ideal for a stroll around the grounds, accompanied by an audio tour that integrates Dickinson’s poetry with the landscape. The green-thumbed wordsmith liked to garden, and more than a third of her poems feature floral references.

If you can’t make it when the flora is at its finest, consider stopping by in December for the annual Dickinson birthday festivities. The celebration includes coconut cake made from the poet’s own recipe.

The particulars: “A Toast to A Quiet Passion” takes place  at the Emily Dickinson Museum on April 14 from 5-6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. No reservations required. http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org

Watching the drama To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters is likely to cause literary wanderlust. (It airs Sunday, March 26, on PBS-Masterpiece.) The backdrop is the Yorkshire village of Haworth and the surrounding moors, a dramatically scenic landscape that helped inspire the novelist sisters’ page-turners Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Here are five things for bibliophiles to do in Brontë Country.

Visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Home to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, along with their brother Branwell, was a Georgian parsonage in Haworth, where their father, Patrick, was appointed curate in 1820. Don’t miss the ink-stained table in the dining room, where the novelists gathered in the evenings to read aloud from their works-in-progress and brainstorm plot ideas. A replica of the c. 1800s parsonage, along with a side street and neighboring buildings, was created on a set outside of Haworth. www.bronte.org.uk

Ramble on the moors. Venture into Wuthering Heights territory as you follow in the sisters’ footsteps across the wind-swept moorland around Haworth. A 2.5-mile walk from town leads to the Brontës’ favorite destination, “the meeting of the waters.” There, Emily would recline on a slab of stone, today dubbed the “Brontë chair,” to play with tadpoles in the water. Continue on another mile to reach the stone ruins of an isolated farm known as Top Withens, credited as being the setting of Heathcliff’s domain in Wuthering Heights.

Have a pint at the Black Bull. At the top of a steep cobblestone street in the center of Haworth is the cozy, 300-year-old watering hole where wayward Branwell Brontë frequently whiled away the hours. Though a talented painter and poet, he was unable to hold a steady job and increasingly found solace in alcohol and opium. In an alcove up the stairwell, his favorite chair has been given pride of place.

Take the Passionate Brontës Tour. Stroll along Haworth’s historic cobbled streets and hear all about the village’s most famous family. Guides use the Brontës’ own letters, poems, and stories to illuminate their literary achievements, shed light on their personal passions and tragedies, and reveal what life was like in this tiny Yorkshire town during their day. www.brontewalks.co.uk

Read a book in the Brontë Meadow. Break out the dog-eared copy of your favorite Brontë novel that you toted along and read a passage or two. Adjacent to the museum, the Brontë Meadow has gorgeous views of the countryside and is a perfect introduction to the novelists’ territory, especially if you don’t have time for a lengthy walk on the moors.

 

For more about the Brontë sisters and the landscape that inspired them, check out the expanded and updated edition of NOVEL DESTINATIONS, which has a brand-new, in-depth narrative chapter about Brontë Country. Available May 2nd.

After Agatha Christie tied the knot with archaeologist Max Mallowan at an Edinburgh cathedral in 1930, they set out on an adventuresome journey. “Max had planned the honeymoon entirely himself; it was going to be a surprise,” Christie penned in An Autobiography.

Romantic Venice was the first stop for the newly wed crime writer. Christie had passed through the Italian city previously while traveling on the Orient Express from London to the Middle East, where she met her future husband on an archaeological dig.

“I resolved…that if ever I am so fortunate I shall spend my honeymoon here!” Max Mallowan once vowed about Venice. And indeed he did.

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These writers and their partners had a flair for memorable gift-giving, from presents that pulled at the heartstrings to gifts that stirred up drama on and off the page.

Scarlett Fever: Margaret Mitchell

margaret-mitchell-typewriter

Margaret Mitchell received a life-altering gift from her husband while she was housebound recovering from a car accident. He presented her with a secondhand typewriter, a sheaf of paper, and the declaration, “Madam, I greet you on the beginning of a great new career.” That typewriter, which Mitchell used to craft her masterpiece, Gone with the Wind, is on view at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library.

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