Tuesday, December 6, 2011

unpack your library!

Is the “books on books” genre experiencing its golden age?    It seems as if there are more of them every year.  Or is this just another sign of the printed book’s continued descent into artifact status? 

Like foodies collecting cookbooks, bibliophiles have always enjoyed books that salute and validate their passion.  As a bookseller I loved stocking these books, and as a rep I love selling them.
This month a stunning little gem slipped into the world, conceived by Michelle Komie at the Yale University Press Art Workshop: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books.  Modeled on last year’s Unpacking My Library:Architects and Their Books, this close-up peek inside the libraries of thirteen contemporary writers is completely addictive.  It’s without question the affordable gift book of the year for the book crazed.

What makes UML so appealing?

-        --The subjects are an imaginative roster of some of the more interesting writers working today- 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.  (Three sets of these people are couples!  Who knew?)

-        --The structure of the book is perfect- short chapters, smart q&a, a top ten books list from each author a, with jacket illustrations of their personal copies, many with gorgeous vintage covers.  (Alison Bechdel's is hand drawn.  Look twice!)   These are followed by four or five pages of luscious detailed photographs of the actual bookshelves.

-       -- The sensation in flipping through the book and reading the comments is a bit like having an intimate conversation with these writers in their libraries.  And they come across (on the whole) as people you’d like to know.

-       -- The bookshelf shots are crisp and clean.  No fuzzy middle distance images that make you guess what the books are.  These are unmistakably legible spines, and you are compelled to prowl them one by one.  You may gasp or hoot when you come across a beloved title of your own on someone’s shelf.

-       -- The book design (thanks to Pentagram) makes this an object to covet.  A horizontal, landscape trim does perfect justice to bookshelves.  The paper over board format is always classy.   The layout is gorgeous, the photographs eye-popping.  Some of the top ten lists are captured with such loving attention that it’s like gazing at a fine still life.  Or food porn.

-       -- Leah Price introduces the whole thing with a super smart essay, and her short author interviews hit just the right notes.  “Gazing at the bookshelves of a novelist whose writings lie dog-eared on my own bookcase, I feel as lucky as a restaurant-goer granted a peek at the chef’s refrigerator,” she writes.

-      --  Because this is an interesting collection of writers and a skilled interrogator, they land on a surprising number of thought-provoking tangents: 

                To what extent should and can a personal book collection be private?

                How to organize the shelves?  Alpha author?  Alpha subject?  “By pub date” (Bechdel tried that one but gave up) Miscellaneous heaps?  (see Edmund White)

                The pros and cons of marginalia are addressed.  The consensus is pro.

                Deciding what to keep and what to shed- how?

                What are your rules for lending books?

                What are the shelves made of and where did you get them?

                Do you have a stash of other books you don’t keep on your public bookshelves?

                What will your library look like in ten years?

Perhaps these are not the most urgent social questions for the end of 2011, but as a reader and a book hoarder I loved hearing how these esteemed writers handle their collecting obsession.

Still, the primary pleasures here are visual and voyeuristic.  If you are someone who can’t resist decoding a bookshelf- any bookshelf- UML is for you.  I can’t even walk through the fake living rooms at IKEA without studying the spines of the book props on the shelves.  Interestingly, they use real books!  Alas, they are in Swedish.

I’d love to see every bookshop in North America invite their customers to “unpack your library.”  Show us your shelves!

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