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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

A couple of nights ago, almost done with the March/April issue, I wondered exactly how many issues of Books & Culture we had sent to the printer since the magazine started. Turns out that the issue you are holding in your hand is our 100th. I'm not given to numerological fantasies, but that answer to my question seemed magical, so perfectly does it express the improbable reality of B&C's ongoing existence. Once again, I am grateful to all who have made that possible.

As soon as this issue is put to bed, I have to start packing. In a few days, everyone on the Christianity Today hallway (where my office is also located) has to move upstairs. If you've ever seen my office, you know I have a lot of books to pack (not to mention magazines, journals, and other assorted stuff). You may not know that I also have several shelves outside my office, just around the corner. Alas, those won't all be going upstairs. In short, a daunting prospect. The good news is that, for the first time in almost ten years, I'll have an office with a window. The nest where I'll be settling is quite nice. And the office of our art director, Jennifer McGuire, will be next to mine instead of at the other end of the building.

Right at the end of last year, I received a book from Yale University Press called Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, edited by Leah Price. Had it come just a bit earlier, it would surely have been included on my list of favorite books of 2011. It follows the format of a book published by Yale a couple of years ago, featuring architects and their books. The new book consists of ten chapters, each focusing on a writer or (in three cases) a literary couple: Alison Bechdel; Stephen Carter; Junot Díaz; Rebecca Goldstein & Stephen Pinker; Lev Grossman & Sophie Gee; Jonathan Lethem; Claire Messud & James Wood; Philip Pullman; Gary Shteyngart; and Edmund White. The editor, Leah Price, professor of English at Harvard, is the author of The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), a book I have read; forthcoming this spring from Princeton is How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, a book which asks (so the PUP catalogue tells me) "how our culture came to frown on using books for any purpose other than reading."

Each chapter in Unpacking My Library begins with a photo of the author; on the facing page, there's a view of bookshelves in the middle distance, with some sense of the room in which they are arrayed. This is followed by an interview, which is followed in turn by a glorious spread: On the left-hand page, in white type on black, are the author's "Top Ten Books"; on the right-hand page, the covers (usually) of the books, some in pristine condition, some heavily worn, stand out against the black backdrop. Finally, each chapter concludes with several pages of close-up photos of the author's (or the couple's) shelves; you feel almost as if you could reach out and take a book from its shelf. The quality of the photos is superb, and the design throughout is unfailingly friendly to the reader.

To savor this book, you don't have to be particularly attached to the writers represented. As it happens, of the 13 writers gathered here, there is only one—Stephen Carter—whose work I consistently enjoy. Some of the others interest me, even though I don't relish reading them; some I have liked in bits and pieces; some I have read only a little; some I positively dislike. Yet I read all the interviews with interest, and—especially—spent minutes on end looking at their bookshelves.

And I found unexpected affinities. I haven't read much of Edmund White's work, for instance; he's not my cup of tea. But the first three books on his "Top Ten" list—Anna Karenina; Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower; and stories by Chekhov—could easily be on my own list. There were other such moments.

Nor is it necessary to find the editor congenial. "As a teenaged babysitter," Leah Price's introduction begins, "I went straight for the books. No sooner did the door close behind the spruced-up parents than I was on the prowl: the bedside table for erotica, the kitchen counter for cookbooks, the toilet top for magazines, and finally the official living room shelves." If you find that opening gambit cheekily charming, witty, disarming, you'll be on Price's editorial wavelength; if not, not. And, questions of literary taste aside, the list of authors is a bit top-heavy with figures who have expressed scorn, disdain, loathing, or condescension for Christianity.

In this respect, Stephen Carter is very much the odd man out; among his "Top Ten" are the Book of Common Prayer (see Alan Jacobs' essay beginning on p. 9 of this issue), Bonhoeffer's Ethics, the King James Version of the Bible, and The Screwtape Letters—but also, let it be noted, Bertrand Russell's collection of essays In Praise of Idleness. (And Carter's shelves include a hefty selection of chess books.)

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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