Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books

Unpacking My Library is a collection of interviews on the bookish habits of thirteen contemporary writers, accompanied by pictures of their libraries. It’s a small book, perfect gift size, about 5 3/4 inches high by 8 inches in wide, and 201 pages.

In her introduction Price writes that as a teenaged babysitter, when the parents left the house she went straight for the books—snooping in various places people keep/hide books before eventually making it to the official living room shelves. She offers a brief history of the bookshelf and attitudes towards books and collecting, but doesn’t mention why these particular writers were chosen. If you’re that much of a book geek that when you visit someone’s house your eyes keep straying past your host to their books, you’ll probably enjoy looking through this book.

I saw the book mentioned online somewhere and requested it via inter-library loan. When the book arrived from a nearby library, the last patron’s library card was forgotten within it’s pages. A good omen. I read this book on a gorgeous spring afternoon, lying on a quilt in the yard with occasional  catch breaks initiated by Lola. It was a delightful way to pass an afternoon, particularly since my own recent book collection reorganization has brought to the forefront of my mind what my books mean to me and how I think about them in relation to one another.

The authors included are an interesting mix: 
    • Lola demanding a catch break.

      Alison Bechdel

    • Stephen Carter
    • Junot Diaz
    • Rebecca Goldstein & Steven Pinker
    • Lev Grossman & Sophie Gee
    • Jonathan Lethem
    • Claire Messud & James Wood
    • Philip Pullman
    • Gary Shteyngart
    • Edmund White
    Each writer answered some questions posed by Price about their books such as acquisition habits, organization, how they treat their books when reading, and whether or not they loan books. Most of the writers do underline, dog ear, and write marginalia. Some are pack rats who hold onto just about every book they read, whereas others let books come and go, keeping a core of beloved books.

    I enjoyed reading each writer’s response to Price’s questions as well as the pictures of their bookshelves and books. It was neat to see book I’ve read, various editions of well-loved books, and hearing about some that were new to me. I was curious about how everyone organized their books Even those who don’t organize their entire collection have some books that are grouped together. Each writer also lists ten favorite or influential books.

    Below are some of the quotes from various writers that spoke to me:
    Bechdel: “I do lend my books, but I have to be a bit selective because my marginalia are so incriminating.” (12)

    Carter on Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia: “To this day, I have yet to encounter a better statement of the many ways in which ideological commitment puts at risk the entire project of the Enlightenment—and therefore of liberal democracy” (29).

    Price asks Pinker about this quote of his: “To encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at Power-Point or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research, and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism, and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away be efficient access to information on the Internet.” Pinker flips between reading “a single book in iPhone, iPad, and paper incarnations, depending on where I am at the time” (72).

    Pinker is unsentimental about books and refers to himself as someone “who loves technology and does not fetishize the physical medium of books” (73).

    In contrast to Pinker is Lev Grossman who, although he doesn’t have his original childhood books says,“since I left college, books have been the one thing, the one class of object, that I’ve assiduously hung on to, through literally dozens and dozens of apartments. The idea of needing a book and not having it immediately to hand is strangely horrifying to me” (87).

    Lethem: “People sometimes act as though owning books you haven’t read constitutes a charade or pretense, but for me, there’s a lovely mystery and pregnancy about a book that hasn’t given itself over to you yet—sometimes I’m the most inspired by imagining what the contents of an unread book might be” (113).

    Lethem: “My books are always organized, arranged, and always being rearranged, too—a constant process” (114).

    Lethem: “I hate lending, or borrowing—if you want me to read a book, tell me about it, or buy me a copy outright. Your loaned edition sits in my house like a real grievance. And in lieu of lending books, I buy extra copies of those I want to give away, which gives me the added pleasure of buying books I love again and again.” (115).

    Messud: “Owning books has been only intermittently of importance to me. At one time, collecting books that were my own, feeling I had my own intellectual and literary trajectory visible before me, seemed necessary and meaningful. But now, in midlife, I feel that my tendency to acquire books is rather like someone smoking two packs a day: it’s a terrible vice that I wish I could shuck. I love my books, and with all their dog-ears and underlinings they are irreplaceable; but I sometimes wish they’d just vanish. To be weighed down by things—books, furniture—seems somehow terrible to me. It’s important to be ready to move on” (130).

    Wood tells this story: “A few years before his death, Frank Kermode was moving house and had some boxes of his most precious books out on the street, ready for the movers. Alas, the garbage men came by and mistakenly took them away, and compacted them. In a stroke, he lost all of his first editions and most prized dedication copies; he was left with only his cheapest paperbacks, and his collection of literary theory. There’s a parable lurking there” (136-37).

    Pullman: “I still have that set of once highly celebrated Alexandria Quartet. Reading it now, it’s hard to see why it went out of literary fashion; but it’s not hard, either, to see why it was the perfect reading for the sort of teenager I once was. I don’t believe in dissing books I used to love, and I always suspect the moral judgment of people who sneer at the taste of the reader they used to be: ‘I know thee not, old book’” (152).
    While this isn’t a book I’d buy for myself, I’d have considered it a charming gift had it come into my life in that manner. I think it’s safe to say that most book lovers would enjoy reading and/or flipping through this book. It would make a great gift for a bibliophile whose reading tastes are unknown.

    Edited by Leah Price
    Yale UP, 2011
    Source: library

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