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Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books
Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books

Yale University Press, 2011
208 pp., $20.00

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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson

Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books

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I think most readers will wish that some of their favorite writers had been featured, but that in itself is not a criticism of the editor; rather, it's a tribute to the appeal of the volume's premise. And there is so much in these pages for any reader. Junot Díaz, I notice, has a copy of Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books and a book by the idiosyncratic anthropologist Michael Taussig. I wish I could ask him what he thought of it. Díaz's casual piles of sci-fi paperbacks remind me of some of my own stacks. On one of Lev Grossman & Sophie Gee's shelves, the Chronicles of Narnia sit cheek-by-jowl with Wyndham Lewis' novel Tarr, in the Black Sparrow paperback edition. The alphabetical juxtaposition is wonderfully incongruous—and it takes me back to the late Sixties, when I was first reading Wyndham Lewis, at Hugh Kenner's prompting. Mostly long out of print, Lewis' books were available at UCSB, across town from Westmont College. Years later, Black Sparrow brought Lewis back into print, but practically no one read him. Lev Grossman (or Sophie Gee) evidently did. On Jonathan Lethem's shelves, in the midst of a run of plastic-wrapped Ace Doubles, I see Philip K. Dick's The Man Who Japed bound with E. C. Tubb's The Space-Born, and I remember the days when it was very difficult to find copies of many of PKD's books. Who could have foreseen the sumptuous Library of America compilations, edited by Lethem himself?

And whose shelf included a copy of Michael Chabon's The Final Solution? I know I saw it, but now I can't find it. While I'm thinking of him, it would be great fun to see Chabon's library. And Peter Abrahams'. And Diane Glancy's. And A. G. Mojtabai's. And Stephen King's. And Susan Howe's. Which reminds me: there are no poets in this volume. Maybe "Poets and Their Books" is in the works.

About the fate of the traditional book, the new reading technologies, and the disposition to hang on to as many books as possible ("Owning books has only been intermittently important to me," Claire Messud says), the writers unsurprisingly are all over the map. Stephen Carter takes a hard line: "No Kindle. No iPad. No phone smart enough for books." Others are more sanguine about e-readers. I find myself in the middle. In the last year, I have become a steady Kindle user, but I also continue to do a lot of my reading in traditional books. How rapid the ongoing changes will be, and what their consequences—all this remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I am quite happy to have this book in hand. There's something faintly uncanny about the suggestion of intimacy in these photos of books. I need to remind myself that in some respects the suggestion is clearly false. Easy to fall into self-flattering nonsense: Ah! We share such good taste, you and I. And yet it keeps reasserting itself: a sense of kinship with fellow readers.

But now I must begin packing. Pray for me.

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