With Harold Acton’s Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948) and More Memoirs of an Aesthete (1970) as our privileged guides to navigate the bookshelves of the La Pietra Library, we can frame the historical periods and geographical spaces covered by the book collection and reflect upon the reading habits of the Anglo-American community residing in Florence at the turn of the 20th century. Reading culture has changed greatly since then. For example, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), which today we consider the epitome of the roaring 20s and the flapper age, was not a bestseller at the time.

“I was too absorbed in the new books I was discovering, in Bernard Shaw’s plays and the works of Oscar Wilde. These I borrowed from a seventeen-year-old American who took a kind interest in my literary efforts. Perhaps twelve is the best age to read Dorian Gray: I devoured the book like strawberries”

Harold Acton, Memoirs of an Aesthete

The La Pietra Library: A Collection

The La Pietra Library is a characteristic example of a book collection of a family belonging to the Anglo-American community living in Florence at the beginning of the 20th century. As can be evinced from the online catalog, the collection contains about 12,000 volumes and represents the combination of the diverse interests and tastes of two generations – the parents, Arthur and Hortense, late-romantic connoisseurs, and the children, Harold and William, authentic modernist aesthetes. The occurrence of bookplates inside the books makes it fortunately possible to attribute many of them to the correspondent family member owner and the arrangement of the locations on the bookshelves in the rooms of this domestic library adds information about the frequentation of the household spaces by its users and, in a way, about their reading habits and how they changed in time. Harold’s holdings, for example, range from the Illustrated Children’s Books of his childhood to the Italian History titles of his later studies, passing by the Poetry, Drama and Fiction of his Eton and Oxford years and all the Chinese History, Art and Literature books collected during his sojourn in China in the 1930s.

A Family Library

A distinguishable spatial division of the Acton family book collection between ‘leisure’ and ‘serious’ reading recalls the typical division of spaces in the Victorian house between the ‘living room’ library, where the family congregated and the guests were entertained, and the study/drawing room where scholarly work was done.

Reading the Readers

What do people read? Where do they get their reading materials? When do they read, and how? What social and economic factors determine their reading experiences?

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