Shelf Obsessed: New Yale book takes a look at the bookshelves of famous authors

Unpacking my LibraryUnpacking My Library: Writers and their Books by Leah Price was published in November 2011 to immediate acclaim from critics, publishing insiders and literary blogs. It gives a personal never-before-seen look at the bookshelves of a pantheon of renowned authors, including Philip Pullman, Junot Diaz, Rebecca Goldstein and many more. Today we take a look at this innovative book.

“There is always at least a 100-book margin between what I own and what I’ve read.” —Junot Diaz in Unpacking My Library

As words and stories are increasingly disseminated through digital means, the significance of the book as object – whether pristine collectible or battered relic – is growing as well. Unpacking My Library: Writers and their Books (a rather beautiful object in itself, winning the Book Jacket Design Award at the 2012 New York Book Show) spotlights the personal libraries of thirteen renowned novelists who share their collections with readers.

Philip Pullman in his reading room

Philip Pullman in his reading room

In her introduction, Price, who is professor of English at Harvard University, muses on the history and future of the bookshelf, asking what books can tell us about their owners and what readers can tell us about their collections (Price’s book features the personal libraries of Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Diaz, Rebecca Goldstein, Stephen Pinker, Lev Grossman, Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud, James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart and Edmund White). Stunning photographs provide full views of the libraries and close-ups of individual volumes: first editions, worn textbooks, pristine hardcovers, and childhood companions.

Junot Diaz and his bookshelfs

Junot Diaz and his bookshelfs

Supplementing the photographs are Price’s interviews with each author, which probe the relation of writing to reading, collecting, and arranging books. Each writer gives a list of top ten favourite titles, offering unique personal histories along with suggestions for every bibliophile. Price’s interviews provide a window into the creative processes, the inspirations and the pure love of literature that permeates the work (and shelves) of each of these authors. Bibliophiles will be fascinated by the varying approached to that age-old conundrum: how to organise a bookshelf. A recent review of Unpacking My Library in the Guardian Book Blog touches on this aspect of Price’s book:

Approaches to shelving range from Jonathan Lethem’s candid anality (“my books are always organised, arranged, and always being rearranged . . . I tend to oscillate between alphabetical absolutism and imperatives of genre, subject, size, colour, publisher”) to the stoical acceptance by Philip Pullman that entropy is inevitable (“foreign editions of my own books crowd in from all over the world like eels making for the river where they were spawned”).

Unpacking My Library has also been popular with literary interior design enthusiasts, and there is much variation in choice of aesthetic found in the reading rooms of the authors. From the pristine, ordered matrix-like shelving of Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker (they even have a ladder to access those hard-to-reach volumes!) to the more scattered approach favoured by Philip Pullman and Junot Diaz, there is much inspiration for those interested in starting their own miniature library.

Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker's impressive library

Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker's impressive library

Also available…

Unpacking: ArchitectsUnpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books
by Jo Steffens

What does a library say about the mind of its owner? How do books map the intellectual interests, curiosities, tastes, and personalities of their readers? What does the collecting of books have in common with the practice of architecture? The first in the Unpacking My Library series, Architects and their Books provides an intimate look at the personal libraries of fourteen of the world’s leading architects, alongside conversations about the significance of books to their careers and lives.

Photographs of bookshelves – displaying well-loved and rare volumes, eclectic organizational schemes, and the individual touches that make a bookshelf one’s own – provide an evocative glimpse of their owner’s personal life. Each architect also presents a reading list of top ten influential titles, from architectural history to theory to fiction and nonfiction, that serves as a personal philosophy of literature and history, and advice on what every young architect, scholar, and lover of architecture should read. An inspiring cross-section of notable libraries, this beautiful book celebrates the arts of reading and collecting.

(Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books features the libraries of: Stan Allen; Henry Cobb; Liz Diller & Ric Scofidio; Peter Eisenman; Michael Graves; Steven Holl; Toshiko Mori; Richard Meier; Michael Sorkin; Robert A. M. Stern; Bernard Tschumi; and, Todd Williams & Billie Tsien.)

Both books in the Unpacking My Library series are available from Yale University Press.

Recent blog reviews of Unpacking My Library
Lynne Hatwell’s Dovegreyreader blog
John Dugdale for the Guardian books blog
Lee Randall for the Scotsman arts blog
Alex Johnson’s Bookshelf blog

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1 Comment

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