Housekeeping Twaddle:
The Book Room
6 November 2014

It was perhaps a tad pretentious to call this room — this room that I’m sitting in, not the one in the photograph — “the blue room,” although it is indeed very blue. I got the idea from the White House, which has three formal rooms that are known by their coloring — red, green, and blue. I always thought that this was pretty cool, because I grew up in a world where rooms were known by their functions. I hated, from an early age, the terms “living room” and “den.” The latter is just gross, describing not a room but the regressive state of mind of an ageing American male. The former, as a result of the latter, has become ironic, because in the typical American house, if it still has a living room, nobody lives in it.

In Manhattan, space is too tight for most living rooms to go unused, but when we moved into this apartment in 1983 we were confronted by a second bedroom that was definitely not going to be used as a bedroom. A guest room, occasionally, but more often a dining room. A multi-purpose room, with the household’s television set and also the bookshelves, cleared from the living room because I had learned, or thought that I had learned, that bookshelves make many people uncomfortable, at least when they’re stocked with books. With this vision in mind, I decided that we would paint the second bedroom in a dark blue color and call it “the Blue Room.”

It must have been pretentious, because most visitors simply couldn’t bring themselves to say it. They would speak of it as “the library” or “your office.” I find the concept of the home office disagreeable and unattractive. It licenses the misuse of a proper room as a walk-in closet. Things that ought to be put away are left out in the open. Tacky and ridiculous items collect near the “workspace.” Why not go all the way and buy some knocked-down Herman Miller partitions? Then you would have a home office cubicle. Lovely.

My resistance of the use of “library” was quite different. It seemed even more pretentious than calling the room by its color. The Blue Room is blue, but it is not a library, because it is not fitted out as a library, with built-in shelves lining the walls. Also, “library” is nearly as suspect to me as “den.” It, too, describes a state of mind, in this case the aspirational outlook of somebody who would like to have read a great deal but who doesn’t in fact do much reading at all. Such people always make me think of the hair driers in beauty salons. If only there were  something that they could just stick their heads into, something that would do the work of reading while they looked at their iPhones! Libraries are nearly as ersatz. A recent cover of The New Yorker showed a woman reading amidst stacks and stacks of books. This is the library fantasy. You can read only one book at a time. In a frenzy of research, you might consult five or ten books. But stacks and stacks? They’re not books anymore, just atmosphere.

Seven or eight years ago, I moved all of my clothes into the blue room. This made a lot of sense, because I’ve always used the second bathroom, which is right next to the blue room, and never the one in the bedroom. Now Kathleen could keep all of her clothes in one room. I slept in the bedroom, watched movies in the bedroom, and kept my reading chair in the bedroom; I didn’t leave, I just evacuated my stuff. This gave the bedroom something of the getaway charm of a hotel room.

By then, the dining table was long gone, as was the convertible couch: the Blue Room was, effectively, My Room. But although it had a reasonably comfortable reading chair, and Ray Soleil and I would occasionally drink tea in here, I did very little in the room but change my clothes and write.

“The Writing  Room.” Ocean liners and grand hotels used to have writing rooms — and they were almost as opulent as the White House’s Red, Green, and Blue Rooms. In the country house that we had for a while, I painted a room Chinese red and called it the Writing Room. It wasn’t grand, but it was spare, with a table in the middle and accommodation for no other activity. Remembering the Writing Room perks me up, because it was very spruce, but then it makes me sad, because almost everything that I wrote in the Writing Room was in one way or another misbegotten.

The audacity of having a writing room was permissible as country-house whimsy; I should never have dared to use the term in this apartment. But that’s what the Blue Room is: a room for writing. The difference between a writing room and a home office is the difference between Sir Francis Bacon and David Allen. It is the difference between weighing and considering and getting things done. I do get a few things done in the Blue Room. I pay the bills every month. I pay them the old-fashioned way, with checks and stamped envelopes. Even with Quicken, the process takes me about two hours; it is aptly called paperwork. But mostly I write. I write thank-you notes. I remember to send Will his allowance. I weigh and consider and I write things down. Writing is never done. It is like everything else in a living household: the bed is never made, the dishes are never washed, the clothes are never clean. There are stretches of time when everything appears to be in order, but sooner or later someone sneezes, someone fills a tumbler with ice and water, someone slips under a blanket for a nap. Someone sits down at the keyboard. The disorder of life resumes.

But you have to put books somewhere, once you have taken them out of the hundred boxes that you have just moved downstairs. The second bedroom in the new apartment will be white, just like all the other rooms. For thirty years, I have lived with bolder colors than most interior designers would prescribe, but from now on I will look to the landlord to keep things looking fresh. The bookcases that are going from one second bedroom to the other will be distressed with coats of cream-colored paint, rubbed to show hints of their old colors and roughed up a bit to conceal wear and tear. The room that is not quite My Room and certainly not my Home Office will not be the Blue Room, either. It’s function has settled: it will be the Book Room.