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Leah Price: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Leah Price is Professor of English and Chair of the History & Literature program at Harvard University, and the Humanities Program Director at the Radcliffe Institute. She is the editor of Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books (Yale University Press).

In Unpacking My Library, Price interviews thirteen contemporary writers about their libraries: Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Diaz, Rebecca Goldstein & Steven Pinker, Lev Grossman & Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud & James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund White.

Were there any responses to the interview questions that surprised you?

I was surprised—even touched—by how intimate some of the answers were.  Questions about a writer's relation to his books somehow yielded answers about a writer's relation to his father, his lovers, even his exes. Junot Diaz told me that "When I was still with my ex, I drove back and forth between New York and Cambridge seven to eight times a month, and that's how I got into audiobooks. I liked reading to my ex. Never read to anyone else. Never had anyone read to me, really." Just as poignantly, Lev Grossman pointed to a bookshelf custom-built for the apartment he used to share with his ex-wife. "Funny how libraries retain ghostly impressions of the past," he reflected: "those bookshelves retain the dimensions of those old rooms, not of the rooms they're currently in, so they're slightly ill-fitting." Both writers think of books as something shared with other people, or tainted by memories of the people with whom they were once shared – which helps make sense, in a way, of the success of LibraryThing in building social relationships via books and circulating books by forging virtual networks.

As you write in the introduction, "To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self," and of course in a way LibraryThing is set up to do just this, allowing us to open our shelves and see what books we share with other readers, authors, and even historical figures. Tell us a bit about how you see the digital age continuing to change the way reading experiences can be shared, and if you have any thoughts on how future historians might look back on how we read today.

That's a great question, because as the rest of our lives have migrated online we've also acquired virtual coffeetables and virtual bookshelves. Our taste goes on display in Second Life, on Facebook, and of course here on LibraryThing. A few years ago, the New York Times worried that the Kindle would prevent strangers from using books as a pickup line; by now it's become clear that the reverse is true. The author quoted a radio host of a certain age reminiscing that "when I was a teenager waiting in line for a film showing at the Museum of Modern Art and someone was carrying a book I loved, I would start to have fantasies about being best friends or lovers with that person." But now that the Netflix queue has replaced the cinema line, others' tastes are more visible than ever.   To the extent that reading is a virtual experience—a way to connect with fictional characters or with authors removed from us in space or time—social media seem like a natural complement to the reading of books, rather than—or at least, as well as—a competitor.

The catch is that people who do most of their reading online often live in houses built for earlier media. Built-in bookshelves are common in houses from the 1930s, when Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, lobbied architects on behalf of the publishing industry: he assumed, rightly, that cabinetry would generate demand for books. A few years ago, when I showed up for a reception in the house of a colleague who reads voraciously but mainly on his computer, I was shocked to see the bookshelves filled with a complete set of hardbacks published by our university's press. They must have sent a truckload from their warehouses to fill the built-in bookcases, in return for prime product placement: I can't have been the only guest who spent the dinner scanning spines to make mental notes about which titles to buy when I got home. But the fact that I am pussyfooting around naming this person suggests that I see his decorating strategy as vaguely embarrassing, as if displaying unread books were tantamount to lying. In this age of oversharing, it may be old-fashioned to feel embarrassed about revealing one's bookshelves, but shame and even guilt still surround reading books we think we shouldn't, or not reading books we think we should.

Since I'm interviewing the interviewer, I can't resist asking you a couple of the questions you asked of the other writers: Tell us about your own library: how do you organize/shelve your personal books?

I alphabetize my books by author, because I'm the kind of obsessive-compulsive who also alphabetizes the spices and color-codes the socks. My books are divided between home and office, but paradoxically the ones that are most on display, in my office on campus, are the least revealing, because when I'm at work I rarely have time to read anything longer than an e-mail or a memo, and so that's where I keep the books that I don't have any intention of rereading.

At home, we segregate the cookbooks (though, inconsistently, I have a beautiful 1880s edition of Mrs Beeton’s Household Manual filed under B, because I don’t have any intention of cooking suet pudding), and there are a few straggler sections dating back to the days before my library started to flirt with my partner's. When we moved in together he started pulling books out of boxes and plopping them down on the shelves without regard to which were mine and which were his. I panicked, because I had assumed that we wouldn't interfile our books, just as blithely as he had assumed that we would. A family therapist would probably add interfiling to the list of things to negotiate in advance: blended families are nothing to merged libraries. Now that our books are promiscuously mingled, we're getting married next month, but that feels like a formality compared to the day when we steeled ourselves to put duplicates out on the curb. Once you've ditched somebody’s copy of Middlemarch, you might as well have signed up for a covenant marriage.

NB: See a photo of Leah Price's bookshelves, here.

Have you found your own reading habits shifting from paper to audiobooks and/or ebooks?

Even before e-readers, books were never the main thing I read: like most white-collar workers, English professors always spent their days reading memos and photocopies, and now those have just changed into emails and PDFs. Before I bought a Kindle, though, I was able to distinguish between screen reading (work) and print reading (pleasure); now they blur together.

I do love reading on my iPhone. Until about a year ago I didn't even own a cellphone, and now I love never having to be separated from a novel, never having to predict or guess whether the wait for the bus will be long enough to justify lugging a big hefty volume.  The downside is that I no longer pick up reading material as I come across it: no more looking at the newspaper that someone else left draped across the subway seat, no more books borrowed from a friend I'm visiting. The result is, sadly, that I notice myself becoming less curious about others' bookcases: if you travel with your own music and your own books in your pocket, you become—for better and worse—more self-contained.

At the same time, I continue to buy books written by my friends in hard copy: I want to have them on my coffeetable! And when I introduce a writer's talk, I want to wave a hard copy of his or her book in the air: showing a powerpoint slide of the Kindle graphic just doesn't cut it.

Each of the writers highlighted in the book was asked to pick their own personal "top ten." Can you give us your own personal top ten books?

I can't, and that tells you something about how personal this question is—maybe that colleague was right to display a bland complete set! It's like choosing an identity: there's too much at stake to hazard an answer. I would say that Middlemarch shows up on more of the 13 lists than any of the other titles, and it would probably reappear somewhere on my Top Ten.

Do you recall your favorite books as a child or young adult? Do you still have them?

My family moved every year when I was a teenager, so I now own only a couple of books from before college. As a student, I didn't amass books either, since weight is a big consideration when you're moving from walkup to walkup every August. And I was lucky enough to attend universities with wonderful libraries: it felt like having an army of personal assistants to shelve the books I needed, while if they'd been in my own home I wouldn't have known where to find them. Then two things happened: I got tenure, and I acquired a mortgage. That's when I started to buy books, along with wineglasses. Breakable things, heavy things: they're a sign of optimism about having a stable life.

You have a new book coming out later this spring from Princeton University Press, How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain. Tell us a bit about what this book will be about, if you would.

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain could be read as a prequel to Unpacking My Library, because it asks where our current attitudes toward displaying and owning books come from. I set out to understand how middle-class Victorians thought—and just as importantly, felt—about books, and my richest informants are novelists like Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontës, and Anthony Trollope. They helped me reconstruct when the term "coffee-table book" emerged, for example: what does it mean to have one category of books for reading and another for displaying? What made Victorian cartoonists mock commuters who hid behind the newspaper, ladies who matched their books' binding to their dress, and illiterate servants who reduced newspapers to fish 'n' chips wrap? These are historical questions, but because I'm addicted to Victorian fiction I try to answer them by looking at how novelists represent their characters reading, handling, and treasuring books – how, for example, romance novelists from Jane Austen onwards show heroes and heroines courting one another by exchanging volumes with significant passages underlined, as a code for emotions that they aren't allowed to express in their own words. One of the surprises that I discovered while doing the research for How to Do Things with Books, in fact, is that Victorian etiquette manuals devote a lot of thought to the circumstances under which it's proper for an unmarried woman to accept the gift of a book from a man. In the other direction, Victorian advice books about proper behavior on trains—at the time, a new form of transportation whose etiquette remained up for grabs—often tell women to keep a book in reserve so that if some stranger tries to catch their eye from the other side of the carriage, they can screen their face behind its pages, in order to avoid immodest eye contact: "a book is the best resource for an unprotected female".

When I think about how much of my own reading I do on the road, I wonder whether the most important technology for reading may be not the printing press, but the railway and later the highway (thanks to which we now have chunks of time in which to listen to those long Victorian novels as audiobooks). Earlier horse-drawn vehicles were so bumpy and badly lit that even if you could see the words on the page, reading them would make you vomit out the window; before railways, travelers passed the time by talking or even singing.  But within a few years of the first railroad line, booksellers had leased space in railroad stations and had started producing series of "railway novels," light and trashy fiction equivalent to what we now call "airport novels."

One of the biggest changes in the past few years is that more and more people carry their own content with them: nobody listens to Muzak because they have their own iPhone, nobody reads American Way because they have their own Kindle. The death of the book may be greatly exaggerated, but in-flight magazines are genuinely threatened. I'm old enough to remember the days when reading material was site-specific: you chose the longest line at the supermarket so you could browse the magazines, or you arrived early for a hairdresser's appointment because you wanted an excuse to read trashy magazines that you would be ashamed to buy. Today, when you're waiting to pay for your groceries you're likelier to be  texting; and even if you do want to read, you just pick up your e-book where you left off on the train. I love the subway because the lack of Internet access and cellphone reception carve out space to read long novels on my phone, even in brief snatches; this is why my heart sank when airlines began to promise that you would be able to go online even there. The Amtrak quiet car is my last refuge: now that even my local library offers lattes, I live for the moment when the conductor asks passengers to turn off their cellphones and "enjoy our library atmosphere."

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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