Your Room Is Booked

The hotel has several cozy spots to share with Kierkegaard or Clancy.
The hotel has several cozy spots to share with Kierkegaard or Clancy. (Library Hotel)
By Carol McCabe
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 1, 2007

I should have called ahead. By the time I checked in, Journalism was gone, as was Geography and Travel. The choice was down to Germanic Languages or Philosophy. That's how I came to spend a recent night in Room 1100.003, in the company of Messrs. Kant, Hegel, Voltaire and Sartre, with George Soros lying on the nightstand.

At Manhattan's urbane Library Hotel at Madison Avenue and 41st Street, guest floors and rooms are keyed to classifications of the Dewey Decimal System, devised by Melvil Dewey in 1876 and familiar to anyone who has borrowed a library book since then. The room you get determines the subject of the reading material on built-in shelves. My 75 volumes included Kierkegaard's "The Concept of Anxiety" and Aristotle's "On Coming-to-Be and Passing Away" -- in Greek.

Once upon a time (Fairy Tales Room 800.005), lots of hotels included books and cozy reading rooms among their amenities. Today's harried travelers are more likely to be offered fitness centers, pools, saunas, shopping arcades and scooter rentals. Anything described as a library is probably a collection of DVDs or CDs.

But book lovers can still find literary lodgings thriving across America, as a list of some of our favorites (see Page P4) proves. Think of it not as a trend, but as a counter-trend.

Nowhere is more shelf space devoted to good reading than at the elegant, six-year-old Library Hotel, a block from the New York Public Library on a section of 41st Street labeled "Library Way." With its collection of 6,000 volumes (bought used from the legendary Strand Book Store), the hotel has been enthusiastically welcomed by readers, writers, artists and librarians (Libraries Room 1000.001). From the hefty art books shelved in mahogany in the sleek lobby to the delicate volumes of verse in the Poetry Garden on the 14th-floor indoor terrace, the place is a bibliophile's dream.

Not all guests are intellectuals longing to relax with, say, a juicy volume by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

According to management, the most requested room is 800.001, Erotic Literature. "Yes, the books in that room would include the Kama Sutra," confirms Yogini Patel, the hotel's marketing director and honorary librarian. On the other hand, some guests, such as those on mother-daughter weekends, specifically ask not to be booked into Room 800.001.

Running a close second to Erotic Lit is Love (1100.006), whose in-room library includes "The Art of Arousal" by Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Dr. Ruth is listed as "curator" of Love, which means she gets to choose the books. But Patel says that factors other than an interest in the amorous arts may account for the room's popularity: "It's the only room with its own terrace."

The hotel's least-requested room is the Paranormal (1100.005). "Some people associate it with spookiness," Patel says, "but others love it."

It's not unusual for hotels to receive requests for specific rooms: anniversary couples seeking their old honeymoon room or disabled guests looking for bathrooms with grab bars. But at the Library Hotel, "lots of people like to get involved with the booking process," Patel says. "We can't always guarantee their choices, but we try."

Librarian guests might notice that the hotel's classifications veer a bit from Dewey's. "We tweak the collection toward our clientele," Patel concedes. "We're surrounded by advertising and communications companies, so we get a lot of corporate business." For them, the Technology floor's room choices include Advertising, Management and Computers.

Post check-in, I dropped by the second-floor Reading Room, a large open area with a wall of windows, a piano and lots of comfortable tables and chairs. Here, complimentary wine and cheese are set out for guests each afternoon, and an ample continental breakfast is offered in the morning.

None of the six or seven others in the Reading Room was reading anything other than a laptop or cellphone screen. Two phone users were braying at a level that would have sent an old-fashioned librarian into horrified shush mode. The stereotypical Marian might also raise a polite eyebrow at the books shelved in no order whatsoever in the room's large bookcases: Tom Clancy keeping company with Thomas Pynchon, Jesse Ventura cuddled up to "The Wizard of Oz."

For me, the serendipitous possibilities outweighed any compulsion for order. I hugged a discovered copy of Jonathan Raban's "Hunting Mister Heartbreak," the only one of his travel books and novels that I haven't read. I overpoured a glass of white wine and sank into Raban's update of the 1782 voyage to America by Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, or "heartbreak" in French. With Raban, I left Liverpool in a ship "like a giant Italian breadstick."

By the time my glass was empty, we were all in New York. It was time to put Raban back into his space and return to Philosophy. I hoped that, like me, Mr. Raban and Mister Heartbreak had something good to read while they were in town.

Double rooms at the Library Hotel (299 Madison Ave. at 41st Street, 212-983-4500, generally start at $249 in July and August, and $349 other times of the year. Stays include a continental breakfast buffet and afternoon wine and cheese. In-room facilities include minibars, DVD player and complimentary high-speed and wireless Internet access. The hotel offers passes to a nearby fitness center and has a business center. The hotel connects to a restaurant called Branzini, but based on my one overpriced, overcooked meal there, I'd recommend stepping outside.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company