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On the Shelves of George Vanderbilt’s Library

All Things Biltmore • 01/04/17

Written By Amy Dangelico

George Vanderbilt’s Library of Biltmore House is a favorite room among guests and employees alike. It also happens to be the room that best reflects George Vanderbilt’s intellect and personality.

At the age of 12, George began keeping meticulous records in a series of journals called “Books I Have Read,” a habit he continued throughout his life. By his death in 1914, George had logged 3,159 books, which means that between 1875 and 1914, he read an average of 81 books a year.

A testament to his passions for books and collecting, the walls of the Library are lined with walnut shelves housing George’s personal collection of 22,000 volumes.

The collection ranges in subject from American and English fiction to world history, religion, philosophy, art, and architecture. About one-third of the volumes were antiquarian purchases, the oldest of which is an Italian work published in 1561.

The collection also includes many French titles—4,326 to be exact—and George’s “Books I Have Read” journals show that he read many of them. Both fiction and non-fiction, the volumes speak to George’s interest in France and its culture as well as his fluency in the French language.

Two journals from George Vanderbilt’s “Books I Have Read” series
Two journals from George Vanderbilt’s “Books I Have Read” series

Just as the journals help us to understand how well-read he was, they give us insight into which authors George favored, though it’s difficult to say who his favorite actually was.

For instance, we know he was fond of French author Honoré de Balzac’s work. George noted having read more than 80 Balzac titles and there are a total of 218 books by the author in his collection.

We also know that of the 30 works by Charles Dickens listed in his journals, George read many of them more than once. For instance, there are two mentions of The Pickwick Papers, which George read at age 13 and again when he was 25.

George also favored Sir Walter Scott. He read many of his 273 books by Scott two or three times. For example, he read Waverly, a groundbreaking historical novel, in 1875, 1897, and again in 1910.

Most of the books George collected were sent to one of the great bookbinders of the period, such as Riviere, Stikeman, Lortic, or David. A few months later, they would return, beautifully bound in Moroccan leather with gilt lettering and decoration, to be placed on the shelves of the Biltmore House Library.

George Vanderbilt’s library collection of Balzac titles
Part of George Vanderbilt’s collection of Balzac titles

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Erika Hedden

Did many of the books have to be restored ?

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