Writers and Their Books: Inside Famous Authors' Personal Libraries

Lessons in reading from an 18th-century lord, or why the allure of an unread book is like the dawn of romance

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As a hopeless bibliophile, an obsessive lover of bookcases, and a chronic pursuer of voyeuristic peeks inside the minds of creators, I'm utterly spellbound by Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books—a vicarious journey into the personal libraries of thirteen favorite authors, who share their collections of childhood favorites, dusty textbooks, prized first editions, and beloved hardcovers, along with some thoughts on books, reading, and the life of the mind.

Alongside the formidable collections—featuring Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Díaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund Whit—are short interviews with the authors about the books most important to them (including their top 10), their style of organization, and their thoughts on what the future of books might hold. (Cue in writers on the future of books.) The interviews are prefaced by Leah Price's fascinating brief history of bookshelves, from the rise of the vertical book on a horizontal shelf to how social bookmarking services are changing our relationship with tagging and indexing information.

"A self without a shelf remains cryptic; a home without books naked." - Leah Price

With a nod to both the Medieval florilegium and the productive messiness of marginalia, Price echoes Craig Mod's vision for the future of post-artifact books:

"Far from making reader response invisible, then, the digital age may be taking us back to the Renaissance tradition of readers commenting in the margins of their friends' or employers' books and contributing homemade indexes to the flyleaves. Only after the rise of the nineteenth- century public library did such acts come to be seen as defacing, rather than enriching, the book."
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Steven Pinker + Rebecca Goldstein

A common denominator in many of my nonfiction choices is their combination of clarity, rigor, accessibility, depth, and wit. The novels by Twain and Melville are gold mines for anyone interested in language and in human nature." - Steven Pinker
Kant tells us that a person can never be used as a means to an end, but must be viewed as an end in itself. This is one of the formulations of his famous categorical imperative. Well, that pretty much summarizes my attitude toward books. I would never use a book as a coaster or to prop up something else, any more than I'd use a person toward that end." - Rebecca Goldstein
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Jonathan 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."

(Isn't that strikingly like the beginning of a romance?)

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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