Sunday, June 9, 2013

Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books edited by Leah Price

Here it is a third of the way through June and I have yet to add any title to my Books Read 2013 list. In my reading pile I have three or four that I have begun; two more that I had requested from the library and that showed up from my reserve list all of a sudden; and then, of course, the used books I recently bought. I don't feel as if I am making any progress!

So I sat down with what is practically a picture book (one of the above mentioned reserve list books) and have had a pleasant browse through Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books (2011) edited by Leah Price.  

Ms. Price, a professor of English at Harvard University, interviewed thirteen authors about their libraries - how their books are arranged or categorized, whether or not they make notes in the margins, if they are pack rats or toss rats, how long they have been collecting books, and what are some of the oldest on their shelves.  

Each author then gives a selection of his or her Top Ten books and may or may not discuss any of them. 

The best parts of course are the photographs. Not only is the reader treated to full view shots of the authors' libraries, but there are pages of close-ups of the shelves. So instead of turning your head to read the titles as you would standing in front of the shelves, you can merely turn this books sideways and have a glimpse into what each author treasures.

There are banged up paperbacks, dictionaries, complete sets of a particular author's work, poetry, childhood favorites, fiction and non-fiction hardcover editions, over-sized books, and even stacks of comic books.

It is interesting to see how neat some of the libraries are - such as those shelves of Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Letham. Others are fairly neat such as the shared shelves of Claire Messud and James Wood,  Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, and  Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker.

Alison Bechdel rigidly categorizes her library - fiction in the living room and then all the non-fiction in neat order by subject. Stephen Carter has a mixture of neat and messy shelves and totally shuns electronic books.

Those truly messy, stuffed shelves and toppling stacks of Edmund White's,  Phillip Pullman's, and Junot Diaz's would drive me crazy. I wanted to scream, "Let's show a little respect, guys!"

Several of the author's featured are in the academic world and their collections reflect that. Some of the writers use their shelves strictly for books while others have mementos, photos, decorative objects and even rocks and seashells scattered among the spines. 

Although I have not read anything by any of the authors featured, it was still fun to peep into their libraries and read what they had to say about their collections.


  1. Thanks for the heads-up on this book, I will have to seek it out. I always enjoy learning what books writers found essential for their private library. As a confirmed pack rat (orderly however!) as to books I do acknowledge a weakness in disposing of any of my books. Recently I donated a few boxes to the library and within a few weeks had regretted doing so......"now where did I put Spengler's "The Decline of the West" ?.....
    The result is too often having to get another copy. While on this subject I must thank one of your frequent readers Belle for recommending "A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books" by Nicholas A. Basbanes, I just borrowed it from the library. Its wonderful and it affirms I may not be too crazy after all compared to some of those discussed in the first few chapters!

    1. Oh, Tullik, I know the feeling of 'Where is that book?' I have replaced many over the years that I foolishly gave away.

      I am glad you connected with "A Gentle Madness." There is another one along the same line, only a bit more lighthearted, entitled 'Biblioholism' by Tom Raabe. Alas, at one time I owned it but read it and gave it away. Counter-intuitive to the title, don't you think?

  2. I'll have to look for this at my library--I'm very nosy about other people's libraries. So much fun to browse, even if it is just by looking at pictures.

    1. Hi Kathy. I love looking at libraries too. You might be interested in the book 'The Writer's Desk' by Jill Krementz. I wrote about it here:

      It has lovely photos of writers 'in situ' and is great fun.