Study No. 3 · Henry Miller Library
When cruising Highway 1 to the hippie valhalla of Big Sur, consider this an essential stop on your journey. Housed in a rustic cabin dedicated to Miller by his friend, artist Emil White, the library has been an inspirational hub for the boho coastal community since 1981, and a beautiful memorial to the penman provocateur. Situated in a Redwood grove dotted with outsider art sculptures, it functions as a non-profit bookshop, gallery and performance space, but visitors use the grounds for everything from meditation to nuptials. It’s also a popular Summertime music venue, and probably one of the only libraries in the World to host rock shows under the stars by legendary acts such as; Patti Smith, Arcade Fire, Jonathan Richman, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marianne Faithfull, Neil Young, Philip Glass, and Beach House.
Henry hung out here during his years living in Big Sur (from 1944–1962), when Emil White resided on the property, and it’s easy understand why it was his favorite local haunt. Walking up the creaky wooden steps into the little cabin, you’re bathed in happy ‘60s surf guitar from a vintage turntable, and are offered tea to sip while flipping through books on the peaceful woodland grounds. The bookshop offers a small yet satisfying selection of vintage and new, as well as local ‘zines, and LPs. When beyond-repair antique tomes begin to crumble, they are cleverly carved out and re-purposed as cacti planters.
In the 1930s, Miller pioneered a revolutionary, free-associative form of avant-garde writing, so it makes sense that the library is now considered sacred ground for like-minded lit lovers, spiritual seekers, and rock ‘n roll souls. Miller’s famous erotic works; Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn, were branded obscene upon release in the 1930s, but when Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned in the U.S. after its 1961 printing, a groundbreaking trial ensued, challenging American pornography laws. Miller won his case when the Supreme Court deemed the book a “work of literature”, and the trial was a major catalyst for the birth of the sexual revolution. Miller was greatly responsible for freeing-up the medium for erotic expression . . . an artistic anarchist, he proudly romanticized the taboo, subsequently inspiring the Beat Generation.
There aren’t many libraries where unconventionality is so highly celebrated. It’s doors are open to anyone who lives for peace, love, music, and the printed word.
Shopkeeper and library intern, Sara, listening to the Beach Boys and beaming positive Big Sur vibes. She had been camping in a tent with her boyfriend in the library garden, while on Summer break from art school.
Left; A table dedicated to the works of Miller’s friend, lover, and muse, Anaïs Nin. Right; The library frequently hosts film screenings, a favorite of which is this 1970 adaptation of Miller’s erotic classic, Quiet Days in Clichy, directed by Jens Thorsen.
Miller settled in Big Sur after traveling extensively through Europe and the U.S. in 1944. He wrote about this mind-expanding journey in The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945), a journalistic novel about post-war, hyper-consumerist America. Deeply inspired by the beauty that surrounded him on the West Coast, he wrote the surrealist auto-biographical works, Sexus (1949), Plexus (1953), and Nexus (1959), followed by Big Sur And The Oranges Of Hieronymus Bosch (1957)... a love-letter to his adopted seaside home and its eccentric inhabiters. Shown above; a triptych of Miller portraits displayed on the library’s back deck.
Left; Theo, the obligatory bookshop cat, hangs out in the warm afternoon sun with my purchases; Anais Observed (1976), and Patti Smith’s memoir, Woolgathering (2011). Right; Miller’s 1936 rejection letter from Random House’s Bennett Cerf, which reads “Dear Mr. Miller, I’m sorry to say that I had to turn down Black Spring. I admire your talent for writing but I didn’t like this particular book at all. In my opinion, it hasn’t the faintest the chance of achieving commercial success in America. I hope, for your sake, some other publisher thinks differently about the book and that I turn out to be all wrong . . . ”. In response, Miller scribbled, either to himself or his secretary, “File or throw away! A lukewarm prick! —Henry”.
We make a trip up to Big Sur to visit this special place once a year, for the always inspiringly organic library experience it presents. This is me in West Coast chill-out mode, ready to read in the redwood scented air, and hang with Theo the cat.
HENRY MILLER MEMORIAL LIBRARY
48603 California 1
Big Sur, CA 93920