By the Books
Sep 22, 2016
“This library is personal and particular and very human.”
— Sherry Kafka Wagner, author, playwright,
urban planner, historian
Comfortably settled in a leather armchair in our library, Sherry Kafka Wagner wears a jaunty Carlos Santana porkpie hat and sips a Mexican Coke straight from the bottle. She’s familiar with the 3,700-volume library, having placed every book on the shelves with her own hands and because the books used to be hers. We acquired her eclectic, scholarly and entertaining collection to establish a hotel library that we’re reasonably sure is unequaled on the planet.
San Antonio treasure and roguish grande dame, Sherry visits the library not with a sense of ownership, but rather with advocacy, with an ambassadorial fervor that draws people to her. She elaborates, “I encounter the most interesting people here all the time. I’ve learned that books are personal and people tell you something about their inner lives when they talk about books. And I never truly understood that until now. I love the idea that random strangers come in and find a book that really means something to them. Whatever your background, wherever you are from, you will find yourself in here.”
As if on cue, a hotel guest stops by to give her a “Women in the World Summit” tote bag and declare that the library is his favorite part of the hotel. A package arrives, addressed to Sherry, from a guest who wants the library to have the enclosed book about ‘possums, written by her great uncle. Moments later a physician visiting from Temple, Texas seeks out Sherry to praise the library and the hotel, saying, “I’ve been stalking Hotel Emma online for months. The level of detail is amazing. It’s a pretty special building. And obviously you’re a special person.”
And so she is. Sherry grew up in Arkansas without books. “I had to struggle to get my hands on books, so they meant a lot to me.” At the age of eight, she told her mother, “I am a person of the story.” Seventy-one years later, having written a novel, plays, children’s books, and television programs, she’s proven her point.
Hotel Emma’s library is another chapter in Sherry’s story and in those of the people who are drawn to its shelves. Guests and hotel staff love their “own” library. Sherry recalls the housekeeper who found a book of recipes that reminded her of the meals her mother cooked in Oaxaca. And the waiter who likes Orwell. “The diversity of the books allows people to find themselves. Maybe that’s part of what frees people to tell their stories to me. Connections keep happening. This library is personal and particular and very human. It provides a kind of humanity… it’s not glib or corporate.”
If you’d like to know more about Sherry’s quietly extraordinary life and to read an autobiographical sketch, visit this link.
As I Lay Dying
“I was about 16 when I accidentally discovered this book. It was the first time I’d read anything that spoke in the voice of the South. I realized that the stories I knew, the people I knew were important and I could give them a voice.”
Karl Ove Knausgard
“This is a significant work. It’s such an audacious and different sort of undertaking. His writing is revolutionary.”
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
“She writes oral history a new way, with the kind of depth you get from fiction. It’s a new idea.”
“Such an American book. It goes to the heart of our problem with slavery, which we’ve never confronted. It may be the best book about the soul of America.”