I’ve recently taken up the challenge of curating my “ideal bookshelf,” the lit equivalent of music’s desert-island picks.
Technology has made it possible to store an entire collection of books on a device the size of a shoe, but many of us still dream of building a physical library. I imagine dedicating an entire room to one, with bookshelves covering every inch of wall space. The only furnishings would be a Danish teak desk and a wingback chair, and the room would be equipped with a machine that could diffuse both the smell of pipe tobacco and the music of Erik Satie every time I entered….
Sorry about that—for now, the fantasy is all I’ve got. At present, my “library” consists of a series of overstuffed Ikea Billys teetering in a musty corner of my basement. My scheme will likely need to wait until my kids have decamped for university. In the meantime, I’ve taken up a more realistic challenge: curating my “ideal bookshelf.”
That concept was inspired by a book released late last year, in which creative types such as David Sedaris and Patti Smith composed lists of their essential reads. Compiled by Thessaly La Force, a former Paris Review blog editor, My Ideal Bookshelf is the lit equivalent of music’s desert-island picks. For a book nerd like myself, there’s a voyeuristic thrill in seeing what celebrities are reading—we can’t help wanting to judge (or copy) other people’s tastes. But My Ideal Bookshelf is also a reminder of why many of us still love paperbound books. E-readers such as the Kobo or the Kindle are marvels of convenience and portability, but they can’t replicate the subtle human dramas that underlie a stocked bookshelf.
Gazing at your collection of worn and dog-eared paper volumes is akin to thumbing through photos of your oldest, most cherished friends—you’re communing with your past. Perhaps in seeing that copy of Play It As It Lays, you’re transported back to that summer when Joan Didion’s cool, cutting prose made you light-headed with envy and inspired dreams of becoming an author yourself. (Such naïveté.) Maybe eight years ago you lent The Russian Debutante’s Handbook to a workplace crush, hoping she would be as dazzled by Gary Shteyngart’s ribald humour as you were, and by extension dazzling her with your edgy taste in fiction. (How wrong you were!)
Our bookshelves in many ways reveal our emotional development, but they can also be used to present a glorified version of ourselves. In My Ideal Bookshelf, comedic film director Judd Apatow explains that as a teenager, he wanted nothing more than to be funny, and to that end, he studied the greats. He writes about hounding comedians like Harold Ramis and John Candy, which would explain why his ideal bookshelf includes Albert Goldman’s bio of Lenny Bruce or Steve Martin’s recent memoir, Born Standing Up. But nowhere does Apatow explain the inclusion, for example, of Saul Bellow’s novel Seize the Day or Raymond Carver’s story collection Cathedral. Were these books genuinely stimulating to him, or did he name them because Bellow and Carver are widely regarded as American masters? I have to trust that Apatow chose his books sincerely, but I can’t shake the suspicion that he was also looking to score some literary points.
And what does my ideal bookshelf look like? For fiction, I’d include Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, all five of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, and two by Charles Portis (True Grit and Dog of the South) for their mordant humour. I’d take Michel Houellebecq’s Platform, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley for their haunting depictions of outsiders. I’d also bring in Christopher Hitchens’ essay collection Love, Poverty and War for its keen political analysis, and Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971–2000 for its literary criticism.
I’d want my ideal bookshelf to convey a mixture of wit and intrigue, authoritative history and forward-thinking fiction. Then again, the above list largely reflects my more recent enthusiasms, and demonstrates a weakness in the classics, non-English literature, and poetry. At best, it’s a work in progress. But it’s an amusing stop-gap until I have the wherewithal to build the library of my dreams.