My Ideal Bookshelf
Thessaly La Force's collection of essays on cultural figures' favorite books will fascinate any bibliophile.
Aside from its myriad effects on the publishing industry, the rise of the e-book has led to a minor crisis for any bibliophile’s home decoration efforts. Which volumes do you display? Which do you tuck away, away from the eyes of prying guests, onto your iPad or Kindle? And which books are precious enough to keep, tattered spines or coffee stains and all, the one that you lug from apartment to apartment? It’s this question that editor Thessaly La Force put to a hundred cultural figures, from essayists to chefs to architects. “Select a small shelf of books that represent you – the books that have changed your life… your favorite favorites,” she requested. The result is My Ideal Bookshelf, a peek into the living rooms of dozens of interesting cultural figures.
"My Ideal Bookshelf" is a jewel of a book, one that any bibliophile will be instinctively drawn to. Each entry, arranged encyclopedically, has a short essay that La Force winnowed down from an interview alongside a sumptuously drawn version of the bookshelf they described. It’s these illustrations, painted by Jane Mount, are the key to the book’s appeal: Her work renders each selection into a cityscape, the slim spines of poetry volumes hidden in the shadows of books of photography. Flipping through the book and perusing these works has the same effect as wandering through the aisles of a well-curated library. You linger on favorites, wonder about authors you haven’t read, feel a tiny thrill of excitement happening upon a paged-through novel on the shelf.
The essays, too, are delightful bite-size looks at the literary taste of semi-celebrities. Who knew that Michael Chabon’s shelf would include both Barry Hannah’s "Airships" and Arthur Conan Doyle’s "Sherlock Holmes"? Or that Twilight author Stephanie Mayer would be a fan of poet Louise Gluck? Malcolm Gladwell even explains, reassuringly, that his crime-loaded shelf is a reflection of an addiction to book buying. “I haven’t read all of them, and I won’t. Some of them I’ll just look at,” he explains, “But these books are markers for ideas I’m interested in…When I see my bookshelf expanding, it gives me the illusion that my brain is expanding too.”
Though "My Ideal Bookshelf" isn’t a work that requires reading it cover to cover – like any book shelf, perusing it at your leisure is far more fun – one of the interesting things that emerges when you go through the shelves in order is the conversation between the writers featured in the book. Atul Gawnde has a book by Malcolm Gladwell on his shelf, and Lorin Stein has a copy of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead on his. The complex dynamics of influence are on display as much as the volumes themselves. “These are conversations between books and readers that would be hard to envision taking place anywhere else,” La Force writes.
Of course, part of the reason for the common influences is the narrow scope of celebrities in the project. Though there are outliers – grocery store thriller writer James Patterson, movie maven Judd Apatow, and professional skateboarder Tony Hawk among them – for the most part, "My Ideal Bookshelf" features a laundry list of East Coast literary scenesters.
This makes a certain amount of sense: La Force, having worked at magazines like The New Yorker and The Paris Review, presumably has more access to these writers and their friends. It’s also true that it’s more interesting to contemplate the bookshelf of someone deeply invested in books than otherwise – Malcolm Gladwell makes a better contributor to this book than would, say, Mike Tyson. But flipping through the book, one longs for a larger variety of shelves, if only for greater contrast in the sea of Fitzgerald and Woolf-worshippers. "My Ideal Bookshelf" sometimes seems like an encyclopedia of a particular kind of taste, a go-to guide of the books that you should have at least passing knowledge of to get by at a cocktail party on the Lower East Side.
But "My Ideal Bookshelf" isn’t meant to be a compendium. It’s meant to be a look into the literary touchstones of dozens of tastemakers, and that it accomplishes beautifully. It will inspire you to rearrange your library, to run out and purchase a dozen of Jonathan Lethem’s or Dave Eggers’ favorite favorites. And, as La Force and Mount no doubt intended, it makes a lovely addition to your own shelf.
Margaret Eby is a freelance writer in New York.