Voyaging through Books
It was time for his books to leave him.
January 26, 1815 must have been bittersweet for Thomas Jefferson. Congress voted to accept his sale of his library of 6,487 volumes for $23,950. Jefferson needed the money and wanted to help the nation after British troops had repurposed the original Library of Congress collection for kindling. But how to say farewell to all those books?
His was the largest, most eclectic private library in America, with books organized in three uber-categories, Memory, Reason, and Imagination, and some 44 subcategories. “I cannot live without books,” he wrote to John Adams after the sale went through, but now he would have to.
He would be sending away over 200 volumes on travel and geography. I wonder if he felt sentimental about parting with one of them in particular, George Anson’s Voyage Around the World. “When young, I was passionately fond of reading books of history and travels,” Jefferson recalled, and he devoured this book, with its startling tales of South America and the South Seas, a “remarkable voyage extremely well told,” as one enthusiastic reviewer put it.
Jefferson’s library had already been through a lot. His boyhood of Shadwell burned in 1770, destroying all but a handful of his volumes. He had to rebuild his library, book-by-book. The copy of Voyage Around the World he sold in 1814 either was a lucky survivor of the fire or, more likely, acquired later.
Jefferson might have had these tales in mind when he took his own voyage to the Old World in 1784 to serve as an American ambassador to France. He was finally living out his boyhood dreams of travel—although he didn’t yet know the ropes. Porters ripped him off; hotels charged more than he expected.
Travel books set him right. In Paris, he spent “every afternoon I was disengaged,” buying books, with a special focus on travel narratives and guidebooks. That way he knew the practical logistics he’d encounter while on the road, leaving him time to take in the sights, meet locals, and dream dreams. He returned home with some 2,000 new books.
In 1788, when two young Americans asked him where they should go on their own trip, he wrote them a long missive he called Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe. It was a golden chance for Jefferson to put his interest in traveling, travel writing, and books to practical use. “After arriving in a town, the first thing to do,” he instructed, is to buy a detailed city map and a book of the place’s “curiosities.” Jefferson recommended three travel guides with practical information on hotels, roads, and taverns, so he could instead focus in Hints on topics like architecture and agriculture, putting his own personalized spin on the tour.
Jefferson’s guide motivated me on my own journey—and ultimately to write a book about it. There’s a through line then, that goes from Voyages Around the World to Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe—which both reside in the Library of Congress today—to my own In Pursuit of Jefferson, which might too, some day.
I hope my book inspires you as well to set off on the road on your own journey. And when you do, take the time to write something about it, whether in a travel journal, a blog post, a postcard, or even a book, keeping this nearly three-hundred-year chain of inspiration alive.