Book Review: Unpacking My Library

Unpacking My Library:  Writers And Their Books, edited by Leah Price

If you read this sort of book [1], you likely know what kind of person you are.  To be sure, in reading this book I saw plenty of kindred spirits.  You know the type–people whose living places are buried in books, whose noses are buried in books, people who, like Beauty & The Beast’s Belle are such notorious readers that their studiousness is confused with incivility and whose reading habits are so prolific that they make others feel a bit daunted in discussing books and reading, which many people may discover boring.  Few people are likely to read a book like this without being readers themselves, and likely writers as well, and those writers who do read this book will likely find the interviews between the editor and the various writers chosen in what appears to be a convenience sample to hit close to home at times [2], and will also likely find that the pictures of the sprawling libraries shown may share many similarities to one’s own libraries, as is the case with me, it must be candidly if uncomfortably admitted.  If this book is somewhat slight in terms of its ambitions, it nevertheless manages to convey to the reader a sense that to become a writer depends on being a great reader, and that the two tasks feed into each other like a serpent devouring its own tail.

The roughly 200 pages of this unusually shaped book are divided into ten chapters where the editor has an interview with one (or two) writers and where pictures are shown of the libraries of the person or people being interviewed.  These chapters are framed by an introduction and by a list of contributors to the book, in which the authors whose libraries are examined are given credit as well for their responses.  The writers chosen in what appears to be a convenience sample of New York-based writers includes the following people:  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.  To be perfectly honest, I am familiar with only a few of these writers, and not necessarily in a complementary sense.  Many of these writers, it should be noted, are most famous for their participation in decadent and corrupt contemporary cultural politics or abusive anti-religious attitudes, or political activism of some kind or another in favor of some supposed subaltern group.  Even so, despite the fact that I am not inclined to be very favorable to the worldviews of many of these authors, I found them to be reasonably close to my own views when discussing books and their importance and the enjoyment of reading them, hoarding them, giving them away, and writing as a result of what we have read in them.

Ultimately, those of us who both read and write often find it necessary to feel ourselves part of a greater community of people who are literate to the same degree (or greater) than we ourselves are.  Whether we are primarily engaged in reading or writing, both tasks are engaged in a great battle against the approaching darkness of despair.  To write is to attempt to communicate over an immense chasm, to hope against hope that our thoughts and feelings can be conveyed to others in such a way that we might ourselves be understood and respected, and that may be able to build a bridge to other beings not unlike ourselves.  To read, and to enjoy what one has read, and to wish to know the people who write better, is in some ways to gratify that hope of being appreciated and understood that is one of the reasons why so many suffering and tormented souls are compelled to write despite the fact that those who often read the most and best are those who write themselves, and so add to the mass of books that remain so frequently unread within the cacophony of voices that can be found.  Hopefully those who read this book can appreciate the authors and their sincere struggle against silence and against their own fears, and appreciate as well the fact that they give honor to those books that have inspired and encouraged them.  For truly anyone who has ever picked up a pen or sat down at a keyboard to write knows that those who write need all the encouragement and inspiration they can get, whether from books or from wherever such encouragement and inspiration may be found.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example, the following quotes:

“I certainly couldn’t have survived my childhood without books.  All that deprivation and pain–abuse, broken home, a runaway sister, a brother with cancer–the books allowed me to withstand.  They sustained me.  I read still, prolifically, with great passion, but never like I read in those days: in those days it was life or death.” – Junot Diaz, p.45

“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 by efficient access to information on the Internet.” – Steven Pinker p. 72

“But that’s not a reason not to have objects made of paper and glue.  Doesn’t anybody but me ever imagine an apocalypse after which there is no electricity, no computers?  Or even the simple and constant problem of the obsolescence of technology, that makes information hard to hold onto over time?  The notion that we can do without knowledge on glue and paper–and that we wouldn’t want the many pleasures of objects made of glue and paper–is, to me, absurd.  Anybody who thinks books are dispensable is someone entirely lacking in appreciation of sensual pleasure.  I pity such a person.” – Claire Messud, p.131

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Unpacking My Library

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Some Of My Best Friends Are Books | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Reading For My Supper | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Audiobook Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much | Edge Induced Cohesion

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