Dig Deeper - Books

"His Chosen Companions"

Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph recalled: "Books were at all times his chosen companions." Jefferson himself described his appetite for reading as "canine," and he surrounded himself with books, storing them in various rooms so that at any moment -- such as when waiting for guests to arrive for dinner -- he could read.

Jefferson's Book Room, or Library

Jefferson's Interests

The wide variety of Jefferson's interests is revealed in his book collections, covering the "visions of antiquity," "everything which related to America," and "whatever was rare and valuable in every science." Jefferson read in French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon, and collected books in their original languages. He organized these books according to Francis Bacon's divisions of knowledge, a system that was later adopted by the Library of Congress.

Jefferson's reading focused on the "delights of classical reading and of mathematical truths." He dismissed most novels as a "mass of trash," and read newspapers less frequently as he aged, writing to James Monroe that "Indeed my scepticism as to every thing I see in a newspaper makes me indifferent whether I ever see one."

Jefferson's Libraries

Jefferson collected three libraries in his lifetime. He started the first in his youth, but it was destroyed when his mother's home, Shadwell, burned in 1770. The second, and largest, of his collections was comprised of almost 7,000 volumes, and in 1814 he sold it to the United States government. This set of books formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress, replacing the collection that was burned by the British during the War of 1812. After the sale, Jefferson began amassing a third library for the amusement of his retirement years. By the time of his death, the book room held more than 2,000 of his favorite books.

The shelves on which Jefferson stored his books were likely made at the Monticello joinery, and the units could be stacked on top of one another to form floor-to-ceiling shelves. If Jefferson wanted to move the books, however, the open side of each unit could be boarded-over to create a portable book-box.

Jefferson's Writings

Jefferson wrote only one full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1787, which was a collection of his observations about the natural, animal, and human characteristics of his native land. Jefferson also wrote a brief autobiography, which begins: "At the age of 77, I begin to make some memoranda, and state some recollections of dates and facts concerning myself, for my own more ready reference, and for the information of my family." In addition, he compiled a collection of extracts from the Gospels which he believed to be the true sayings of Jesus. The text, now published as Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels: "The Philosophy of Jesus" and "The Life and Morals of Jesus," consists of translations of the gospels in Latin, Greek, French, and English, and was an effort on behalf of Jefferson to separate the true precepts of Jesus from their "corruptions."

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Image Credits

  • Book Room. Photograph by Robert C. Lautman.

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