Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker's Library
Nothing quite prepares you for the culture shock of Jay Walker's library. You exit the austere parlor of his New England home and pass through a hallway into the bibliographic equivalent of a Disney ride. Stuffed with landmark tomes and eye-grabbing historical objects—on the walls, on tables, standing on the floor—the room occupies about 3,600 square feet on three mazelike levels. Is that a Sputnik? (Yes.) Hey, those books appear to be bound in rubies. (They are.) That edition of Chaucer ... is it a Kelmscott? (Natch.) Gee, that chandelier looks like the one in the James Bond flick Die Another Day. (Because it is.) No matter where you turn in this ziggurat, another treasure beckons you—a 1665 Bills of Mortality chronicle of London (you can track plague fatalities by week), the instruction manual for the Saturn V rocket (which launched the Apollo 11 capsule to the moon), a framed napkin from 1943 on which Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined his plan to win World War II. In no time, your mind is stretched like hot taffy.
Wearing a huge can-you-believe-it grin is the collection's impresario, the 52-year-old Internet entrepreneur and founder of Walker Digital — a think tank churning out ideas and patents, it's best-known for its lucrative Priceline.com. "I started an R&D lab and have been an entrepreneur. So I have a big affinity for the human imagination," he says. "About a dozen years ago, my collection got so big that I said, 'It's time to build a room, a library, that would be about human imagination.'"
Walker's house was constructed specifically to accommodate his massive library. To create the space, which was constructed in 2002, Walker and architect Mark Finlay first built a 7-foot-long model. Then they used miniature cameras to help visualize what it would be like to move around inside. In a conscious nod to M. C. Escher (whose graphics are echoed in the wood tiling), the labyrinthine platforms seem to float in space, an illusion amplified by the glass-paneled bridges connecting the platforms. Walker commissioned decorative etched glass, dynamic lighting, and even a custom soundtrack that sets the tone for the cerebral adventures hidden in this cabinet of curiosities. "I said to the architect, 'Think of it as a theater, from a lighting and engineering standpoint,'" Walker says. "But it's not a performance space. It's an engagement space."
Walker shuns the sort of bibliomania that covets first editions for their own sake—many of the volumes that decorate the library's walls are leather-bound Franklin Press reprints. What gets him excited are things that changed the way people think, like Robert Hooke's Micrographia. Published in 1665, it was the first book to contain illustrations made possible by the microscope. He's also drawn to objects that embody a revelatory (or just plain weird) train of thought. "I get offered things that collectors don't," he says. "Nobody else would want a book on dwarfs, with pages beautifully hand-painted in silver and gold, but for me that makes perfect sense."
What excites him even more is using his treasures to make mind-expanding connections. He loves juxtapositions, like placing a 16th-century map that combines experience and guesswork—"the first one showing North and South America," he says—next to a modern map carried by astronauts to the moon. "If this is what can happen in 500 years, nothing is impossible."
Walker struggles to balance privacy with his impulse to share his finds with the outside world. Schoolchildren often visit by invitation, as do executives, politicians, and scholars. Last February, the organizers of the TED conference persuaded him to decorate their stage with some of his treasures. But he's never invited any press in to see the collection—until now.
Senior writer Steven Levy (email@example.com) profiled sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in issue 16.09.