Writers and Their Books: Inside Famous Authors' Personal Libraries

By Maria Popova

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?)

Stephen Carter notes the importance of being pushed out of our intellectual and literary filter bubbles:

My life was changed. The books she gave me opened my mind to the simple realization that there is in the world such a thing as truly great literature; and that I would never discover it by mere hit-or-miss, or by reading only what interested me."
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Claire Messud + James Wood

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 under- linings 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." - Claire Messud
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Gary Shteyngart

Some books are just crap and have to be thrown out. But some crappy books remind you of certain times in your life and have to be kept. In the closet." - Gary Shteyngart
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Philip Pullman

How does the reading feed into the writing, and vice versa? Continually, continuously, promiscuously, in a million ways." - Philip Pullman

And in the vein of last week's meditation on how to read a book, Price relays the following advice, bequeathed by the Earl of Chesterfield to his son in 1747:

I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments; and it will make any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind."

(The same Lord Chesterfield two years later pronounced, "Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.")

Equal parts voyeuristically indulgent and unapologetically stimulating, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books is the second installment in Yale University Press's ongoing series, following 2009′s Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books.

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This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/12/writers-and-their-books-inside-famous-authors-personal-libraries/250280/