The Book is maker of the Reader

“The Child is father of the Man,” William Wordsworth once wrote, counter-intuitively. What you experience in youth shapes your grown-up sensibility. My first post in this series on bookshelves was in that vein.

In the same way, the Book is maker of the Reader. Books change our minds, shift our perceptions, enlarge our imaginations. They enable readers to experience unfamiliar things, to see the world as if they had different circumstances. They enable us to empathize with other people more readily. Martha Nussbaum has said as much about the humanities in general.

Right now I’m reading My Ideal Bookshelf, which you see at the top of this post.

It’s a book of bookshelves, their spines rendered in paint by Jane Mount. Each shelf is accompanied by first-person monologues from “one hundred creative people in a variety of disciplines,” writers, designers, chefs and other artists, “from around the world” — though really, mostly from the American northeast and California.

Still, their shelves are cosmopolitan; they set Japanese novelists (Murakami) next to Argentine essayists (Borges); classic Americana (Melville, Cheever) next to living writers (Foer, Franzen); and familiar books (Twelfth Night, Ulysses) next to some real oddballs (Tales Designed to Thrizzle). There are a lot of highbrow/aspirational Penguin classics, like Don Quixote or To the Lighthouse or other remnants of undergraduate degrees. I left with aspirations of my own: Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe will fit in next to my Carl Sagan collection.

The monologues focus on how each collection has changed the collector. Writers are especially self-conscious of this. Dave Eggers on Herzog: “It makes me feel alive to the possibility of what can happen on the page, what can happen even in one sentence.” But you hear the same from typeface designers and ballet dancers. My unexpected favourite was the pulp-fiction writer James Patterson: “I think it’d be disastrous if everyone wrote the way I do. But I think it’s good that somebody does.” His Stephen King sits next to Márquez and Montaigne.

On Fred Benenson’s blog there are some beautiful visualizations of the data in this book, like how often the collecters have each other’s books, or how often David Foster Wallace appears.

The book reminds me of Susan Hill’s memoir about her life in books, slotting various books from her well-stocked shelves into the chronological shelves she builds around them. It’s a lovely book and was the culmination of a History-of-Reading seminar I taught a few years ago. But My Ideal Bookshelf is differerent: more superficial, at times, but more varied.

There’s a dynamism to these shelves, and not just in the ebook library that one collector includes for its lateral movements, because “everything should constantly be in play.” The dynamism comes from a strong feeling that these are not hermetic collections, but working ones. Each collector has read and annotated and imbibed them; Jane Mount even renders the bits of paper sticking out of their top edges.

David Chang, the chef, says his cookbook shelf is “like a collection of baseball cards. … Not every player is your favorite [sic], but some are rare and more meaningful in strange ways than others. You still collect them all.” These are collections for trading and sharing, for outgrowing their limits.

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