The problem of bookshelves

Over at Paper Cuts, Jennifer Schuessler has joined the inter-blog conversation about bookshelf etiquette by confessing that her collection is “heavily weighted toward the unread,” stockpiled for the coming era of the Kindle-toting zombies. I already spoke my piece, by blogging about all the books I’ve been throwing out, but for those whom the topic continues to fascinate, I recommend two books that I’ve been reading by the photographer Moyra Davey, Long Life Cool White, just published by Yale University Press, and The Problem of Reading, which you have to email Davey herself to buy a copy of (see the link for instructions). Both books are filled not only with Davey’s moody photos of bookshelves in various states of disarray and transition but also with her thoughts on the place of reading in a creative life, and the difficulty, in managing the habit, of striking the right balance between purpose and serendipity, and between work and pleasure. “‘What to read?’ is a recurring dilemma in my life,” she admits in The Problem of Reading, which has, among other images, a great close-up of her mother’s annotations of Swann’s Way. Long Life Cool White focuses more specifically on the problem of reading about photography (and writing about it). At one point in that book, Davey, like Schuessler in her anticipation of zombies, considers her bookshelves as a storehouse, similar in function to her refrigerator, only more so:

A well-stocked fridge always triggers a certain atavistic, metabolic anxiety, like that of the Neanderthal after the kill, faced with the task of needing to ingest or preserve a massive abundance of food before spoilage sets in. . . . I feel a little towards my books as I do towards the fridge, that I have to manage these as well, prioritize, determine which book is likely to give me the thing I need most at a given moment. But unlike with the fridge, I like to be surrounded by an excess of books, and to not even have a clear idea of what I own, to feel as though there’s a limitless store waiting to be tapped, and that I can be surprised by what I find.

3 thoughts on “The problem of bookshelves”

  1. Moyra Davey's books look great — so, first of all, thanks for the heads up about those!

    What to read next is a perennial problem…

    A TBR-pile is organized. It becomes so big that it takes over a whole desk. Daily, the pile grows. A further pile is made: an-absolutely-must-read pile. Daily, it grows. So, a further pile is created. The bedside table is determined as its home. Just what is currently being read (3 or 4 titles) and the ones that, for sure, for certain, will be read next. Nothing more: discipline is required! Just the books that, for certain, will, very soon, in just a week or so, be attended to.

    Daily, the new pile grows!

  2. All this bookshelf blogging might as well lead to other bookshelf blogging. (I do not believe that particular blog is the first bookshelf blog I ever encountered, which suggests a strange fact that there may be more than one blog that is solely about bookshelves.) Including, of course, the odd blog post about arranging your books by color.

  3. I'm still into the topic, tangential to the reading crisis, which is when I started reading your likeable blog, so, here's another comment contribution, though perhaps a bit redundant to previous posts, taken from Henry Miller's odd book, The Books in My Life: from Chapter 1, "They were alive and they spoke to me:" "…many of the books one lives with in one's mind are books one has never read. Sometimes these take on amazing importance. There are at least three categories of this order. The first comprises those books which one has every intention of reading some day but in all probability never will; the second comprises those books which one feels he ought to have read, and which, some at least, he undoubtedly will read before he dies; the third comprises the books one hears about, talks about, reads about, but which one is almost certain never to read because nothing, seemingly, can ever break down the wall of prejudice erected against them" (NDP280, p. 29). If you do pick up Miller’s book, even if just to glance thru it, don't miss at least the beginning of the Preface, and also Appendix III: "Friends who supplied me with books," perhaps a fourth category on some shelf somewhere!

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