The other day, I bought a book just for its cover. I didn’t even have to open it to know it was written just for me, or at least people like me, which is to say, people who always pause the movie when bookshelves appear in the background and spend ten minutes trying to identify titles (if you’ve never done this, try it! It’s fun). The book is Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books (edited by Leah Price), and it’s a collection of photographs of famous writers’ bookshelves, accompanied by interviews about how their collections have grown, how they curate their books, and the ten books from their shelves that they find the most meaningful.
This is not a design book featuring walls of perfectly dusted, primly maintained leatherbound editions. The bookshelves featured here are packed with many kinds of books: battered paperbacks, ripped hardcovers, mass markets with broken spines, galley copies (industry speak for cheaply bound, uncorrected proofs that are sent to reviewers and other authors ahead of publication), and some paperback and hardcovers in perfectly decent condition as well. Many sport post-its or other tags among their pages, marking important passages. Some aren’t on shelves at all, but stacked on other surfaces. In other words, these are libraries that have been lived with, not just an interior designer’s signature touch.
The central idea behind Unpacking My Library is that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their bookshelves. This isn’t quite as simple as it sounds, of course, because the books we choose to keep in our bedrooms might speak more honestly about ourselves than the books we display in the living room or stack on the coffee table. There’s the age-old trick of putting out a book in the hope of impressing someone, even if we haven’t read it and never intend to. But for the most part, I tend to agree that knowing a person’s books can give you a specific, intimate insight into his or her life.
In his interview in Unpacking, Junot Díaz proclaims that he doesn’t like to hide books, because if a book isn’t out, “no one will ever randomly pick it up and have a conversation with you about it.” And that’s ultimately why we display books, isn’t it? To start conversations, to discover shared taste and interests, and yes, to impress people. It’s a nice way of impressing people, in my opinion, one that doesn’t focus entirely on you, but that allows others to be drawn in as well.
There are plenty of books in my house that I haven’t read yet, simply because I buy books faster than I read them, and I used to be ashamed to display them because I thought it made me seem fraudulent. But I’ve changed my mind about this. If books are ideas, wrestled with and honed, and then typed and bound, then a bookshelf is a collection of ideas that fascinate you. Even if you haven’t read a particular book, the fact that you have it shows curiosity, an impulse you couldn’t tamp down.
It’s almost impossible to talk about bookshelves and book displays without touching on the elephant in the room: ebooks. They’re here, they’re staying, and they’re fundamentally changing the way people interact with their books. How do you share your literary collection with the world if you can only access your books on a screen? For this and many other reasons, I have to confess that I don’t care for ebooks. I don’t begrudge anyone their ereader, and I understand why some people love them, particularly when it comes to traveling or commuting (a friend of mine recently described reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume One on his ereader while en route to India, and if you’ve ever seen the size of that thing in hardcover, you know why this is a big deal). But as a reader, the thought of books as files depresses me. I also find them overly complicated; I simply cannot understand the “convenience” of needing a computer to read a book. Traditional books, on the other hand, seem relatively simple in comparison. As a professor of mine once put it, books are the perfect technology: all you need is a light source. Plus, you can line them up on shelves and categorize them and look at them every day and invite others to do the same, and I think that’s important.
On the plus side, if ebooks continue to take off, there might be a surplus of cheap bookcases on the market, which I am in desperate need of.