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Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books

by Leah Price (Editor)

Other authors: Alison Bechdel (Contributor), Stephen L. Carter (Contributor), Junot Díaz (Contributor), Sophie Gee (Contributor), Rebecca Goldstein (Contributor)8 more, Lev Grossman (Contributor), Jonathan Lethem (Contributor), Claire Messud (Contributor), Steven Pinker (Contributor), Philip Pullman (Contributor), Gary Shteyngart (Contributor), Edmund White (Contributor), James Wood (Contributor)

Series: Unpacking My Library (2)

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3801667,998 (3.67)27
As words and stories are increasingly disseminated through digital means, the significance of the book as object-whether pristine collectible or battered relic-is growing as well. Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books spotlights the personal libraries of thirteen favorite novelists who share their collections with readers. Stunning photographs provide full views of the libraries and close-ups of individual volumes: first editions, worn textbooks, pristine hardcovers, and childhood companions. In her introduction, Leah Price muses on the history and future of the bookshelf, asking what books can tell us about their owners and what readers can tell us about their collections. Supplementing the photographs are Price's interviews with each author, which probe the relation of writing to reading, collecting, and arranging books. Each writer provides a list of top ten favorite titles, offering unique personal histories along with suggestions for every bibliophile. Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books features the personal libraries of Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot D©Ưaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund White.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Endlessly fascinating photos of several novelists' bookshelves, with brief interviews on the subject of the physical book, shelving practices, reading habits, etc. I love books about books, and this one is a treat. Even though I'm only marginally familiar with most of the authors featured here, it's still a rush to peer at their bookshelves (which range from the raw pine creatively messy conglomeration of Junot Diaz's collection to the sterile white uniformity of Rebecca Goldstein & Steven Pinker's cubic system) and find that I share titles with these successful writers and thinkers. I was surprised at the number of them who profess to have no attachment to their books as objects or repositories of memory ("I read that one at Aunt Clare's the summer my mother had her surgery" "That's the copy of Ulysses that the puppy chewed the back cover off" "This was Dad's favorite western novel; he read this copy as a teen-ager.") In addition to scoping out particular titles on the shelves, it was fun to be invited into the living rooms of strangers just to look around. Why, in Claire Messud's lovely, tasteful library/music room, is there what appears to be an Oriental rug rolled up and stashed behind a chair? What's the story behind the antique pitchfork in Lev Grossman's study? Philip Pullman, do you really always have those enormous stacks of books on the floor in front of your otherwise orderly bookshelves? (If so, I LOVE you, man!) A great number of the books on Edmund White's shelves seem to be unread copies of books by ----Edmund White. Each of the authors featured here was asked to share a "Top Ten" list. Comparing those was fun--Chekov, Tolstoy and Nabokov made multiple appearances; so did Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop and George Eliot. I was excited to see Barbara Pym and Alice Munro given mention. If you're a library voyeur, you can spend a lot more time with this book than it takes just to read the text.
Read and reviewed in 2011 ( )
1 vote laytonwoman3rd | Mar 28, 2024 |
Unpacking My Library is a collection of interviews on the bookish habits of thirteen contemporary writers, accompanied by pictures of their libraries. It's a small book, perfect gift size, about 5 3/4 inches high by 8 inches in wide, and 201 pages.

In her introduction Price writes that as a teenaged babysitter, when the parents left the house she went straight for the books—snooping in various places people keep/hide books before eventually making it to the official living room shelves. She offers a brief history of the bookshelf and attitudes towards books and collecting, but doesn't mention why these particular writers were chosen. If you’re that much of a book geek that when you visit someone's house your eyes keep straying past your host to their books, you’ll probably enjoy looking through this book.

The authors included are an interesting mix:

Lola demanding a catch break.
Alison Bechel
Stephen Carter
Junot Diaz
Rebecca Goldstein & Steven Pinker
Lev Grossman & Sophie Gee
Jonathan Lethem
Claire Messud & James Wood
Philip Pullman
Gary Shteyngart
Edmund White

Each writer answered some questions posed by Price about their books such as acquisition habits, organization, how they treat their books when reading, and whether or not they loan books. Most of the writers do underline, dog ear, and write marginalia. Some are pack rats who hold onto just about every book they read, whereas others let books come and go, keeping a core of beloved books.

I enjoyed reading each writer's response to Price's questions as well as the pictures of their bookshelves and books. It was neat to see book I've read, various editions of well-loved books, and hearing about some that were new to me. I was curious about how everyone organized their books Even those who don't organize their entire collection have some books that are grouped together. Each writer also lists ten favorite or influential books.

Below are some of the quotes from various writers that spoke to me:

Bechdel: “I do lend my books, but I have to be a bit selective because my marginalia are so incriminating.” (12)

Carter on Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia: “To this day, I have yet to encounter a better statement of the many ways in which ideological commitment puts at risk the entire project of the Enlightenment—and therefore of liberal democracy” (29).

Price asks Pinker about this quote of his: “To encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at Power-Point or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research, and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism, and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away be efficient access to information on the Internet.” Pinker flips between reading “a single book in iPhone, iPad, and paper incarnations, depending on where I am at the time” (72).

Pinker is unsentimental about books and refers to himself as someone “who loves technology and does not fetishize the physical medium of books” (73).

In contrast to Pinker is Lev Grossman who, although he doesn’t have his original childhood books says, “since I left college, books have been the one thing, the one class of object, that I’ve assiduously hung on to, through literally dozens and dozens of apartments. The idea of needing a book and not having it immediately to hand is strangely horrifying to me” (87).

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” (113).

Lethem: “My books are always organized, arranged, and always being rearranged, too—a constant process” (114).

Lethem: “I hate lending, or borrowing—if you want me to read a book, tell me about it, or buy me a copy outright. Your loaned edition sits in my house like a real grievance. And in lieu of lending books, I buy extra copies of those I want to give away, which gives me the added pleasure of buying books I love again and again.” (115).

Messud: “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 underlinings 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” (130).

Wood tells this story: “A few years before his death, Frank Kermode was moving house and had some boxes of his most precious books out on the street, ready for the movers. Alas, the garbage men came by and mistakenly took them away, and compacted them. In a stroke, he lost all of his first editions and most prized dedication copies; he was left with only his cheapest paperbacks, and his collection of literary theory. There’s a parable lurking there” (136-37).

Pullman: “I still have that set of once highly celebrated Alexandria Quartet. Reading it now, it’s hard to see why it went out of literary fashion; but it’s not hard, either, to see why it was the perfect reading for the sort of teenager I once was. I don’t believe in dissing books I used to love, and I always suspect the moral judgment of people who sneer at the taste of the reader they used to be: ‘I know thee not, old book’” (152).

While this isn't a book I'd buy for myself, I'd have considered it a charming gift had it come into my life in that manner. I think it's safe to say that most book lovers would enjoy reading and/or flipping through this book. It would make a great gift for a bibliophile whose reading tastes are unknown. ( )
  Chris.Wolak | Oct 13, 2022 |
Ever want to peak at writer's bookshelves? here is your chance. ( )
  auldhouse | Sep 30, 2021 |
I love seeing other people's libraries, how they are organized, what they collect, other items that are kept with their books. This book also includes some short interviews with the writers whose collections are photographed. I would have loved to see more authors involved in this project, and would also be interested in seeing a blog where readers from around the world contribute to a gallery of personal libraries. This book is really too short -- I wanted more! ( )
  resoundingjoy | Jan 1, 2021 |
This is an interesting little book. My only real issue is the writers they chose to interview. Other than Alison Bechdel, the others were mostly literary fiction or critics of the stuffy variety. As more of a genre reader as I am, I found it difficult to care for what they offered. Having said though, the book is an easy read. You get a look into the books, their shelves, and the ways these folks think about books, how they relate to books. That part I did find interesting. The photography is very good by the way, which is another reason I liked the book. If you like books about books and reading, this is a pretty good one to pick up.

Now, if it had been me, these are people whose shelves I would love to see and who I would have loved to hear about their books and their reading:

*Gabriel Garcia Marquez

*Mario Vargas Llosa

*Neil Gaiman

*John Scalzi (I like his blog, so I imagine he would have good insights given some of the things he has said already).

*Alan Moore

I think this might make a good exercise. If you were to do a book like this one, which authors would you want to include. These are just five of my favorites, but there could be a few more I would not mind including. Anyhow, food for thought. ( )
  bloodravenlib | Aug 17, 2020 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Price, LeahEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bechdel, AlisonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Carter, Stephen L.Contributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Díaz, JunotContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gee, SophieContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Goldstein, RebeccaContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Grossman, LevContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lethem, JonathanContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Messud, ClaireContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pinker, StevenContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pullman, PhilipContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Shteyngart, GaryContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
White, EdmundContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wood, JamesContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed

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As a teenaged babysitter, I went straight for the books.
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As words and stories are increasingly disseminated through digital means, the significance of the book as object-whether pristine collectible or battered relic-is growing as well. Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books spotlights the personal libraries of thirteen favorite novelists who share their collections with readers. Stunning photographs provide full views of the libraries and close-ups of individual volumes: first editions, worn textbooks, pristine hardcovers, and childhood companions. In her introduction, Leah Price muses on the history and future of the bookshelf, asking what books can tell us about their owners and what readers can tell us about their collections. Supplementing the photographs are Price's interviews with each author, which probe the relation of writing to reading, collecting, and arranging books. Each writer provides a list of top ten favorite titles, offering unique personal histories along with suggestions for every bibliophile. Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books features the personal libraries of Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot D©Ưaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund White.

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