Unpacking my library: Writers and their books Edited by Leah Price, Yale, $20
This is an unusual book both in concept and design. The book consists of interviews with some American men of letters on their libraries interspersed with pictures of how the libraries of these men and women are actually arranged.
Most readers, even in these days of the Kindle and other similar devices, prefer to physically possess the books they read or want to read. This desire is what produces private libraries.
As a book lover and reader, I have heard of only one man who had the resources to buy books but never bought them. He borrowed them from the library or kept those he got for review. This was the historian, E.H.Carr, who lived to the ripe old age of 90 but his house and study in his Cambridge college was strangely bereft of books.
The contrasting example is that of those rich people who buy books “by the yard’’ as the saying goes. The famous New York bookshop, Strand, still sells books by the yard, according to the introduction to this volume. There are firms that produce dummy jackets.
But the authors here are all sincere book lovers and they value their book collections more than most things in life.
There are two common running threads in what these writers have to say about their collections. One is that they hate to throw away or give away any of their books. The other is the fear that some of their books, especially the paperbacks, will one day disintegrate. The fear of fragility is perhaps one of the principal reasons why one day, books stored in cyber space may be more preferred than books on paper. People will own virtual libraries which they will not have to unpack.
Buying books to read them is an addiction that catches the young. Often, as these interviews make evident, the addiction begins with the first earnings — money earned from delivering newspapers or mowing the neighbour’s lawn. Tastes in buying change, of course, over time. One of the writers provides an amusing account of how this happened to him.
Stephen Carter was an avid reader from a very early age but for many years, he says, what he read was junk. Then in tenth grade, his English teacher told him he was wasting his time and offered him a challenge. She said she would read any three books that Stephen would give her provided he would read any three books she would give him. Stephen agreed and this changed his life. The books his teacher gave him opened his mind “to the simple realization that there is in the world such a thing as truly great literature.” But the amusing and amazing thing is that Stephen Carter remembers the name of the teacher but cannot recall the name of the single book that she gave him to read!
This is a book that book lovers will enjoy reading and looking at. It offers a peep into a few people’s love for books and the ones that they think influenced them the most. The pictures offer a glimpse of how the books are kept in their houses. It seemed to this reviewer that in every case the books were a little too neatly arranged. There wasn’t the sense of untidiness, of books upon books. This made me a bit uneasy. Were the books made to pose for the camera?