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The 20,000 Volume Library of a Blind Senator That Inspired a World-Famous Author

By William SheltonJuly 31, 2018

The home of the Malaysian ambassador in Rock Creek Park, Washington DC, is a house with a colorful past. It was originally the home of the blind Oklahoma Senator Thomas Pryor Gore. During the Senator's tenancy of the house from 1906 to 1949, the entire third floor was a plain deal-wood room lined with shelves containing over 20,000 books. As the Senator was blinded in childhood in two separate accidents, it fell the lot of his long-suffering wife to read to him.

When the Gores welcomed grandson Gore Vidal in 1925, Mrs. Gore taught the boy to read at the age of four so that he could assume the task of reading to the Senator. The grandson related that since the Senator was chair of the Banking and Currency Committee the first documents that he learned to read were about the gold standard in currency. Later there would be books by Seneca, Ovid, and Tacitus from the attic library. These reading sessions, which continued until the grandson joined the Army in 1943, would fire his imagination.

By the time he left the military following the end of WWII, young Gore Vidal had published two novels and was on the cusp of publishing The City and The Pillar, a novel so incendiary that the New York Times editors said that they would never review one of his books again. In his 1995 autobiography Palimpsest, Mr. Vidal credited these early years spent in the attic, reading to his grandfather, as the origin of his passion to be a writer.

He specifically remembered the day when, as he was reading, he was imagining a different plot line for the characters of the book. He was seven years old at the time.  By the time he was 14 he had begun drafting two novels.  Thanks to the enormous number of history books contained in his grandfather's library, coupled with the constant flow of politicians in the house, Gore Vidal centered his literary output in these two areas. His American history series is a definitive snapshot of each great age of our national past. His novels The Judgement of Paris, Live from Golgotha, and Julian he considers 'inevitable' based on the classical lessons learned, seated at the feet of his grandfather, reading.

After WWII Gore Vidal was faced with two career options: move to Oklahoma to assume the political mantle of his family or pursue the broader world of a writer. He chose the latter, and at the age of 22 set out on a European tour with fellow writer Tennessee Williams before finally settling down in Guatemala, where he purchased an abandoned monastery and spent the next five years writing eight novels under the pen name Edgar Box.

When Senator T.P. Gore died in 1949 and the Rock Creek Park house was being sold, Gore Vidal's grandmother related an amusing story: shortly before the Senator's death one of the domestic staff "straightened" the books in the library and arranged them by binding color. This totally obliterated the touch-based catalog system which Senator Gore used to identify the books. Mrs. Gore said that the shock and emotional strain of no longer being able to navigate his library led to the Senator's early demise. One never knows how their reading habits, such as this case of a blind man with a passion for books, will influence the lives of young readers.

About the Author: William Shelton has been a part of ThriftBooks Operations since he joined the staff of the Dallas processing center in 2009. He is a native Texan, was educated at Southern Methodist University (go Mustangs!), and devotes his spare time to his two passions: the Episcopal church and his ancestral family estate, where he specializes in growing rare heritage vegetables and fruit varieties imported from all over the world. He is an avid reader who neither owns nor watches a television, preferring to spend his professional and private time surrounded by books.

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