“It took so much self-actualization to learn from that,” Rees says. “This guy buys a math book at 16 with all its challenging material, and it’s going to be important to know when he is on the battlefield at 50.”
Then there was the book containing “Rules of Civility,” more than 100 of which Washington took the time to copy.
Though Washington’s personal library will be open only to researchers, a temporary exhibit, “George Washington: A Reader,” will be housed in Mount Vernon’s museum with some of the original books under glass. In the administration library room, Kurt Bodling, a technical services librarian, makes studied ritual of opening another volume lying between foam cushions. There are a couple of books where Washington wrote in the margins, Bodling explains as he opens an illustrated 1763 encyclopedia from London with George Washington’s personal book plate to signify ownership.
A request to touch it, because that is the impulse, is firmly rejected. To handle the books, Bodling explains, your hands have to be very clean and you have to treat “everything very gently.”
Other books include a 1787 edition of “Don Quixote” bought by Washington the day Congress approved the Constitution. Perhaps travel reading on Washington’s trips back to Mount Vernon? There’s a book on economics and taxation inscribed by the author, Andrew Hamilton, “To His Excellency George Washington, Esq., President of the Congress of the States of America,” in a reminder of a time before the country had settled. The last book, acquired in 2011, was “Cadmus, or, A Treatise on the Elements of Written Language,” whose author, William Thornton, was the first architect of the Capitol. These are the people Washington rubbed shoulders with, Bodling says. He “wasn’t just a general or a politician. He lived in the same broad-ranging intellectual world.”
Rees has no post-retirement plans, other than to attend to his health. He will continue to live in the two-story brick tudor with the river view on the grounds of Mount Vernon.
“I arrived when Mount Vernon was a very simple place,” he said. “You got in line, went to the house and pretty much that was it.”
On the eve of his retirement, he is animated about the new library and still spinning the Washington story forward, talking about the very, very old as a chance to see the first president anew.