Francesca Mari’s recent Paris Review article “Shelf Conscious” is a fascinating read that starts with the premise embodied in a quote from Susan Sontag “You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books.” However, it is not only the titles that matter. The way the books are arranged and shelved counts too, in fact it may be more revealing. At least that is a theme that Ms. Mari highlights in discussing Leah Price’s new collection of interviews Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books. As Price herself puts it “To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self.” Ms. Mari follows her lead.
According to Ms. Mari, the interviews in Price’s collection keep the “focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves.” But before discussing the book shelving and arranging preferences of the various writers, Mari provides a brief historic survey of book shelving practices from “around the time the codex emerged in the first century AD” to the chained books of the medieval monastery to the decorative cachet of the built-in bookshelf of the 20th century. Ms. Mari then draws examples from the personal practices of writers as diverse as Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, and Claire Messud. She ends with an account of her own recent experience in refashioning her book collection. The results of which many readers will find surprising.
(As an added bonus the article is nicely illustrated with photos that visually enhance the piece and help bring it to life.)