Jefferson Library

 
 
Thomas Jefferson and Books: Some Highlights
 
Jefferson was a lifelong reader and collector of books. In 1813 he wrote to Abigail Adams of "my greatest of all amusements, reading," and informed her husband, John Adams, in 1815 that "I cannot live without books." He recognized his own insatiable hunger for books in 1789, when he wrote: "Sensible that I labour grievously under the malady of Bibliomanie, I submit to the rule of buying only at reasonable prices, as to a regimen necessary in that disease."
 
Jefferson assembled three different collections in his lifetime -- one of which became the core collection of the Library of Congress. His first, which he valued at 200 British pounds, was lost when his house at Shadwell burned in 1770. After the destruction of the federal library in the war of 1812, Jefferson offered his own collection -- then over 6,700 volumes -- to the government. In 1815 he sold to the Library of Congress what he considered "the choicest collection of books" in the country for $23,950, considerably less than its value. Contemplating his empty shelves, Jefferson immediately commenced a third collection and owned over 2,000 volumes at his death in 1826.
 
Jefferson published only one true book himself, his Notes on the State of Virginia. After a small private printing in 1785, he soon had to arrange for wider distribution, to prevent the appearance of poor translations. It was often reissued during his lifetime, but he never completed a revised edition as he intended.
 
He often fostered the publication of what he considered valuable titles. In the case of the works of the French philosopher Destutt de Tracy, he promoted their American publication and actually translated one of them himself. He tried to encourage publication of a less expensive edition of the pioneering work on American ornithology by Alexander Wilson.
 
Jefferson's own reading tastes changed and evolved over his long life. An early enthusiasm for poetry, for instance, had faded by the time of his retirement. But, as his granddaughter recalled of that late period: "Books were at all times his chosen companions . . . . I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.
 
Content
Lucia C. Stanton, Monticello Research Department, January 1993
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