Keith Richards: Librarian, Rockstar.

8 March 2019 Mick Epis

Keith Richards: Librarian, Rockstar.

Keith Richards, in his library, 1995

“Dartford Public Library was nothing like this, believe me,” says Keith Richards in an interview in the New York Public Library, but “it was a place where you got a hint that maybe there was a thing called civilisation. It was the only place around where I would willingly obey the rules.”

The Rolling Stones guitarist hits on two key things about libraries – they are the repository of knowledge, memory and stories, which have kept civilisation alive when it had died outside, and they are often the place where children learn the rules and piece together a bigger picture of the world.

“When you are growing up,” Richards has said elsewhere, “there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully — the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you”. That is a third important thing about libraries – empowerment. There is nothing like it for a child: you can teach yourself.

The New York occasion was the publication of his autobiography Life (2010), and the smile on his face when it’s pointed out that he now has his own book in the library is priceless. Nowadays he has two, the second being a child’s book, Gus & Me (2014), about his grandfather getting him his first guitar.

Richards’ library in his Connecticut home is a beauty. He says that he even once considered getting “professional training” so he could properly manage his collection. The books are eclectic, as they should be, with a heavy preference for histories of WWII, which left Dartford Library standing even as so much around it was ground to dust by Nazi bombs. 

Historical fiction is plentiful, especially Patrick O’Brian novels (Master and Commander). Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a favourite, as is the Bible – more for its phrases and stories than theology. A microscope reveals a book on northwest Africa (Yallah by Paul Bowles), Red Horizons, on former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, biographies of Richard Burton and Marilyn Monroe, the Child Care Encyclopedia – and photography books on cigarette packets and pub signs. But be careful: Richards fell from the library ladder once – his cracked ribs delayed the start of the Stones’ 1989 European tour.

His desert island book is Doctor Dogbody’s Leg, in which a one-legged sailor tells everyone who asks a different story about how he lost his leg in the Napoleonic Wars. “Reading is my anchor,” he says. Every pirate needs one.

» This article was first published in Ed#582.