IN 1984, George Ramsden, a 30-year-old British bookseller who had never read anything by Edith Wharton, bought her personal library for $80,000. He kept the books in a room above his bookshop where he would invite select visitors to view them by asking if they wanted to come up and see “Edith.” When he finally sold the library (for $2.5 million) to The Mount — the Wharton museum in Massachusetts — he negotiated the right to accompany it across the Atlantic to set up the display himself. He wept as he unpacked the books, demanded solitude as he arranged them, and took a long time to finish the job.

People get weird about libraries, or, to put it another way, libraries seem to accrue values beyond use and exchange. So what does a library mean?

This is the question at the heart of Sheila Liming’s new book, What a Library Means to a Woman. She strives to answer by analyzing the specific library collected by Edith Wharton and what it meant to Wharton herself, her contemporaries, her heirs, and even to the odd custodians and passionate scholars who have guarded and exploited it.

To look for the meaning, in the fullest sense, of a specific material object or set of objects is an inquiry that escapes the purview of any one academic discipline. Accordingly, Liming relies on a dizzying number of research methods and information sources: personal memoir and biographical detail, close readings of Wharton’s fiction and analyses of the annotations she made in the books she read, the history of interior design and the economic data of the book trade, literary theory and the sociology of culture, personal interviews and institutional history. But “multidisciplinary” is a pallid word for this book. It is thinking guided by the object of inquiry itself. It is literary scholarship keyed to a question so specific that it takes on at times the aura of a novel — the concluding chapter about George Ramsden felt like a chapter from a detective story, for example — and, for the same reason, it achieves at other times the general significance of a philosophical meditation.

Over the last seven years, Liming conducted research at The Mount, and while there, she had a chance to observe the reaction of visitors to the sight of Wharton’s books:

Sometimes an allusive remark would serve to express a visitor’s disdain about the library “not being worth” the money that had been reportedly spent on it; others, meanwhile, would bombard their guide (or me) with questions that circled back to discussions of cost and worth: How much does a first-edition Ulysses cost, anyway? Did Wharton have all of her books custom bound or just the expensive ones? I came to see these forms of scrutiny as inspired by the space of the library itself, with its railings and its climate control and its overt physical enforcements. At the same time, I also came to see them as tied to a very specific kind of contemporary illiteracy: most of us in the twenty-first century no longer live with and among books, so we struggle when faced with estimations of their worth. […] [V]isitors to The Mount sense that Wharton’s library has value, but are hard pressed when asked to conceive of its value in terms that defy the logic of monetary worth or simple cost.

What this “illiteracy” blocks, Liming suggests, is the recognition that a personal library is not just a collection of commodities that happen to be books, but a kind of intellectual casing, shell, or home.

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The foundation of Wharton’s collection was a few hundred volumes she inherited from her father. This was a “gentleman’s library,” purchased to display (or stand in for) the possession of good taste. It was, in other words, precisely the kind of library-for-show that people are now suspicious of by default — until Wharton became its steward. That she inherited it at all was a coup: most of her father’s property went to her brothers, and even though they had been college-educated and she had not, she got the books. Over the course of her life she expanded the collection by thousands of volumes.

Liming shows that Wharton’s book-buying choices reveal predilections unusual in a woman of her time: “[U]pper-class women during Wharton’s time (and throughout subsequent generations) were primed for success in social intercourse and received training in subjects that might prove beneficial to their social, rather than their intellectual, development,” but Wharton purchased and read an unusual number of foreign-language books, as well as an unusual number of histories. (Liming cleverly determines this by comparing the ratio of genres on Wharton’s shelves to the ratio of genres published in her day.) Wharton’s development of her book collection gave her the training needed to make a significant contribution to literature, and to be well read in a way atypical of the gendered expectations of her day.

She also used her personal library to establish the social networks that demonstrated her literary eminence and that continue to be associated with her fame ever since. Perhaps her most notable friendship was with the novelist Henry James. And it began as a friendship between readers rather than writers. As Liming recounts:

[Wharton and James] who had nothing to say to each other fifteen years earlier went on to describe themselves as being inseparable, spurred by conversations that centered mostly on the reading of books. Reading, in fact, figured more prominently in their conversations than writing: “I always tried to keep my own work out of his way, and once accused him of ferreting it out and reading it just to annoy me,” Wharton explains.

A library can establish — as it did for Wharton — the possibility of relationship with other people. Like a home, it can be both a shelter and a meeting place. And not just for the one who collected it.

To make this latter point, Liming compares Wharton’s attitude toward book-collecting with that of a contemporary, Walter Benjamin. The penurious Marxist critic and the wealthy, best-selling novelist had little in common. But both of them moved about the world in the same volatile and uncertain era, clinging to their libraries like hermit crabs. Both also worried that the ability to appreciate the meaning of their collections would be lost to succeeding generations. Liming writes:

What unites Wharton and Benjamin, then, is their shared status as members of a disappearing class of devoted collectors. From their writing, it is apparent that both Wharton and Benjamin dwell among and through their books, viewing their library collections not only as extensions of their selves but as ambulatory homes or vessels for the housing of the self. Wharton declined the opportunity to name an institution as the inheritor of her library collection because she was banking on the hope of remaining “legible” to the world — to use Benjamin’s word for it — through the eyes of a new generation of bibliophiles. But what the fate of her library collection makes painfully clear is that that new generation failed to fully materialize.

Wharton, in other words, attempted to bequeath her library to people who would appreciate it, understand it, and use it. And although it first moldered in an inherited English estate and then sat trapped above George Ramsden’s bookshop, it did eventually attain Wharton’s desired outcome. Now reinstalled at The Mount, it is patiently organized and studied by people like Liming. Perhaps, then, this book itself justifies Wharton’s hopeful act of keeping the books together and not donating them to a larger public collection in which they would disperse like water in water.

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Liming discovered a few secrets in the library. Some were unpleasant; she found out, for example, that Wharton had acquired some of her books in dubious fashion (stealing one from her brother) and discovered in Wharton’s annotations “the specters of her stinginess and pearl-clutching.” Other secrets were delightful: the tokens and tiny papers that end up in books, and on one occasion even some dog fur, “the subjective, animal detritus of Wharton’s and others’ interactions with this particular collection of books.”

Probably the biggest secret concerns a possible inspiration and model for Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which turns out to bear striking thematic and narrative similarity to Eline Vere by the Dutch novelist Louis Couperus. Why was the probable influence so long submerged, basically ignored by critics and scholars? Because, as Liming puts it, “[Couperus’s] name lacks canonical value.” He is, however, in Wharton’s library. The tracing of literary influence, and therefore of the evolution of culture, remains a very imprecise science when based on the fluid and prejudicial notions of a given critic about probable relations among the sub-canon stored in their imagination. The concrete existence of a writer’s personal library anchors such speculations in reality. Wharton’s library, in other words, does more to make her “legible to the world” than much of the best Wharton scholarship.

The library’s existence also opens up new perspectives on Wharton’s fiction. Her penchant for writing about collectors and collecting becomes unmistakable from the standpoint of her own shelves. Even George Ramsden noticed this, when he actually began reading Wharton after buying her library. When Liming interviewed him, he noted: “The more I read of her books, too, the more central libraries seemed to be — to her, to her writing.” Liming examines several of Wharton’s fictional libraries (one of which is not so fictional, but based directly on a public library she patronized) and her fictional book collectors and librarians. The value of this undertaking struck me above all in her discussion of The House of Mirth. Liming shows how Lawrence Selden, the heroine’s apparent best match and lost opportunity, is defined by his self-conception as a collector of fine editions, and she notes how his turn away from the heroine — one of the key events in the book — occurs when he begins to perceive her as something widely desired by other men, like a book too “handled” to belong in his collection. It adds up to a reading of Selden I had never considered and found persuasive.

Knowing the history of Wharton’s library also grants certain moments in her work a new poignancy:

In The House of Mirth, which Wharton wrote while living at The Mount, her protagonist, Lily Bart, views Lawrence Selden’s library in light of gendered privilege specifically, remarking, “How delicious to have a place like this all to one’s self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman.”

As Liming notes, Wharton wrote those lines while living at The Mount, a house she designed for herself with special attention to the library that housed the book collection she had inherited from her father. Wharton knew she was privileged beyond the ordinary lot of women in her time. Interestingly, she also insisted in her autobiographical writings that she was self-made. Liming shows from her fiction, however, that she was aware of the ways her peculiar situation enabled her to live an intellectual life beyond the patriarchal boundaries of many of her contemporaries.

It is with many layers of meaning, therefore, that Liming offers her most general answer to the question, “What does a library mean?” It means, she writes, “inheritance writ large.” Through books, readers inherit the cultural deposit of the past, and through intact personal collections of books, we inherit the context of meaning in which the book collector lived. Inheritance itself is a gendered concept, and the fact that Wharton inherited the first books in her own collection meant a great deal to her. That significance, more than anything, may explain her decision to keep the books intact in her will, to extend the chain of inheritance into the future. As we receive it from her, it has broken free of its patrilineal course. It makes sense that Liming would posit the meaning of libraries in general in a book about what a library means to a woman: the universalization of intellectual inheritance passes by necessity through women. Sheila Liming’s fascinating book proves her to be an exemplary heir.

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Robert Minto is a writer of fiction, essays, and book criticism. He lives in Pittsburgh.