My Ideal Bookshelf
Thessaly La Force (Ed), Jane Mount (Ill)
Category: Nonfiction: Books & Reading; Art
Synopsis: Dozens of writers, artists, chefs, and inventors share what is on their “ideal bookshelf,” each of which is represented with a painting.
Date finished: 6 June 2013
Comments:This is a brilliant idea. I love the idea. I couldn’t believe no one had thought of this before. Readers love nothing more than to poke through someone else’s bookcase. A single bookshelf says more about a person than most anything they actually say to you. The idea is so smart on so many levels.
And yet, the book didn’t work for me.
Here’s the deal: I’m only interested in what people I know are reading. Of the 106 writers, artists, chefs, etc. represented here, I was only familiar with 15 of them. And I was not intimately familiar with any of them. It became a joke with me. I’d turn the page, see another name I didn’t know, look them up in the back for a brief bio (and I mean brief) and invariably it would say, “short story writer.” This had to be 90% short story writers—or founding members of Sonic Youth. The editor showed her bias in such an obvious and naive way, that it narrowed her audience hugely. Now, maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she’s an Artist-with-a-capital-A, so names don’t matter to her as much as passion, but she did want to sell books, didn’t she? Right?
Now, had this book been proposed by a bigger name in publishing, and a name more connected with writers rather than “app designers” (good heavens is that going to date this book in a few years), you could have seen Stephen King and Maya Angelou and Gwyneth Paltrow (I don’t know why I threw her name out there, she just seems like the bookish type). This could have been a fabulous book. With the people used—God bless them—it was pretty ho-hum. When will folks realize we don’t all live on the East Coast, that we’re not all obsessed with pop culture, and that we don’t all have an i-device sprouting out of our fingers or ears?
I enjoyed the paintings and appreciated that most of the work there was in learning to do the lettering for the various spines. That fascinated me. The accompanying text was too short, though. The blurbs read like the editor, La Force, had asked for a few pages of text, and then she ruthlessly cut and jimmied things until it fit in the space allotted. It’s what editors do, but she was careless about it. Everybody’s text sounded exactly the same, because she edited the voice out. The text was soulless and limp. And since they were only allowed a certain amount of space, only a couple of the books on each shelf were ever discussed. Excuse me, but wasn’t that sort of the point of the whole exercise?
It was interesting to see what showed up on shelves over and over: The Elements of Style, Moby-Dick, Lolita, Jesus’ Son, The House Book, Bird by Bird, Infinite Jest, as well as work by Updike, Didion, O’Connor, Wharton, Carver, and Lorrie Moore. James Patterson’s story about watching a woman shoplift his book (page 142) is almost worth the price of admission. I wrote down a few quotes that I enjoyed, but I found it almost tragic how many writers wrote about their desire to imitate other writers.
This book should have been done by Oprah! That would have been…wow, I can’t even finish that sentence without having to sit down for a minute. Not that I’m an Oprah-ite, just that her pull would have made this book legendary. She could have brought in well-known writers and big time celebrities. The folks represented would have appealed to more readers, and the audience would have been expanded exponentially. (There are less than 30 reviews for this book on Amazon.) As it is, it’s sort of a snapshot in time that feels plastic and throw-away. It makes me sad that such a great idea failed so spectacularly.
Would you recommend this to a friend?
Maybe, but mostly just to get their take.