Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books"

Are you constantly curious about what other people are reading? When you go to people’s houses or offices, do you surreptitiously run your eyes over the books on their bookshelves? “Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books” (Yale, 2011), edited by Harvard English Professor Leah Price, offers a rare opportunity to exercise this curiosity. First, it is a lovely, horizontally rectangular hardback book, with thick, sturdy, coated pages, inviting you in. Second, it is full of gorgeous photos of writers’ bookshelves throughout their houses. The writers are (including three couples who share chapters) Alison Bechdel; Stephen Carter; Junot Diaz; Rebecca Goldstein and Stephen Pinker; Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee; Jonathan Lethem; Claire Messud and James Wood; Philip Pullman; Gary Shteyngart; and Edmund White. Each writer’s section starts with an overview photo of the shelves in her/his/their rooms. This is followed by several pages of up-close photos of shelves, close enough to easily read the titles and see the condition of the books: some old and grand, some in sets, some dog-eared and falling-apart paperbacks, some interspersed with other objects, some perfectly packed in, some crammed in every which way. Also in each writer’s chapter is a brief interview with the editor, on such questions as when the writers started acquiring books, whether they keep everything or regularly pass books on, what kind of shelves they use and why, their system of organizing their books, and where else in the house they have books (kitchen, bedroom, bathroom?). One interesting question asked of the couples was whether they kept their books separate or “interfiled.” (The answer was generally combined, but with a clear awareness of who had brought each book into the relationship.) One more delight in each chapter is the list of the writer’s “Top Ten Books” on one page, and a photo of those ten books on the facing page. I thoroughly enjoyed perusing the various bookshelves. I was pleased to note that many of the writers chose among their Top Ten some of my most-loved books: for example, several chose one of Virginia Woolf’s novels; a couple chose George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”; a couple more chose one or more of Jane Austen’s novels; and one chose an Alice Munro short story collection. This book is a delight. What an abundance of information, photos, and the sheer joy of books!

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