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Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books


As words and stories are increasingly disseminated through digital means, the significance of the book as object—whether pristine collectible or battered relic—is growing as well. Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books spotlights the personal libraries of thirteen favorite novelists who share their collections with readers. Stunning photographs provide full views of the libraries and close-ups of individual volumes: first editions, worn textbooks, pristine hardcovers, and...

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Unpacking My Library

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As words and stories are increasingly disseminated through digital means, the significance of the book as object—whether pristine collectible or battered relic—is growing as well. Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books spotlights the personal libraries of thirteen favorite novelists who share their collections with readers. Stunning photographs provide full views of the libraries and close-ups of individual volumes: first editions, worn textbooks, pristine hardcovers, and childhood companions.

In her introduction, Leah Price muses on the history and future of the bookshelf, asking what books can tell us about their owners and what readers can tell us about their collections. Supplementing the photographs are Price's interviews with each author, which probe the relation of writing to reading, collecting, and arranging books. Each writer provides a list of top ten favorite titles, offering unique personal histories along with suggestions for every bibliophile.

Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books features the personal libraries of Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Díaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund White.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"You are . . . what you read." This book takes 13 authors from across genres and strips them, exposing their essence through a close look at their most private possessions-their books. A list of 10 favorite reads and a short interview accompany beautifully composed photographs of each private collection. Among the modern literary notables profiled are Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), and Allison Bechdel (Fun Home), all of whom impart intimate details-or lack thereof-of the relationship they share with their personal libraries, relating everything from the first book they ever purchased to how they feel about what will happen to their amassed wealth of literature after they're gone. Though Price aims to explore the nature of a bookshelf to reveal truths about its owner, perhaps more fascinating is how, while immersed in wonder about how these books may have shaped each author's work, readers are given the chance to compare their own reading lists with those of their favorites.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
The Boston Globe
“In its beautiful design, Unpacking My Library is itself an argument for the continuing vitality of physical books and the libraries that contain them.”—The Boston Globe
The Chronicle of Higher Education - Jean Temarin
"Filled with juicy details about how writers read, collect, and live with their books.”—Jean Temarin, The Chronicle of Higher Education
New York Book Show - Jacket Cover Design Prize
Winner of the 2012 New York Book Show Award in General Trade Jacket, as given by the New York Book Show 
The Sunday Republican - Alan Bisbort
"[M]any of the observations may help disorganized book nuts bring some shape to the mishmash of books we call our own libraries."—Alan Bisbort, The Sunday Republican
Fine Books & Collections
Unpacking My Library is a wild, wide world of authors and their books.  Maul it savagely or gently caress it.”—Fine Books & Collections
Harrisburg Magazine - Harvey Freedenberg
"There are many expensive coffee table books about books and libraries, but for a relatively modest cost, Price's volume offers a gorgeous set of pictures . . . [a] lovely book."—Harvey Freedenberg, Harrisburg Magazine
Rain Taxi - Jeff Bursey
"[A] sensual pleasure for the eyes, and a book fans of the writers, and of books and libraries, will enjoy."—Jeff Bursey, Rain Taxi
The Barnes & Noble Review

Judge it by its cover, and Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books clearly falls into the category of the coffee-table book. Such books are usually unpretentious — it's rare to see one from a university press — but they have a definite semiotic purpose: they are meant for display, and they communicate something about the person who displays them. A glossy, photo-filled book about, say, Ireland will almost always belong to someone who loves going there and talking about their trips; a book about dogs is an invitation to compare puppy stories. Unpacking My Library consists of interviews with thirteen prominent writers about their book collections, along with photos of their shelves: it is a book about books, and to buy, give, or receive it is to declare an allegiance to bookishness.

Which is why, despite its charming appearance, there is something unsettling and elegiac about Unpacking My Library. "In Google's Cambridge office," writes editor Leah Price in her introduction, "a dozen flat strips of plywood are fixed to the wall at right angles to equally flat vertical strips of paper, each bearing the title of a book. These strips were once the spines of books; the volumes from which they were sliced have been disbound for scanning. Like taxidermists' trophies, the wall attests a successful slaughter." It is a vivid metaphor for the way printed books, the physical objects we have known for 500 years, are going the way of the telegram — or, to use Price's image, the dodo bird.

Even as e-book sales start to outnumber sales of print books, however, the writers Price interviews declare a steadfast allegiance to paper and ink. Fittingly, it is Steven Pinker, the only scientist in the group, who bucks the trend: "I sometimes flip between reading a single book in iPhone, iPad, and paper incarnations, depending on where I am at the time.... [I don't] fetishize the physical medium of books." On the other end of the spectrum is the novelist Claire Messud, who has a bodily relationship with her printed volumes: "I like best to read in bed, lying down, on my side, the way I read when I was a kid: I can't imagine going to bed with a cell phone or an iPad."

One of the advantages of the book, Price's interviewees suggest, is this kind of continuity over a lifetime: the physical object becomes a bearer of memory. Each writer is asked to choose his or her top ten books, and often these are old, battered, but cherished volumes. Sophie Gee has two coverless paperbacks on her list, while Stephen Carter includes a copy of Mathematics for the Million, a 1940 edition of Lancelot Hogben's classic work of popular mathematics that "I loved taking down from my father's shelves." The literary couples interviewed by Price — including Gee and Lev Grossman, Messud and James Wood, and Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein — agree that they can instantly remember which partner brought which book into the relationship.

Books are tokens of identity — which is why most of these writers declare their reluctance, or inability, to throw out a book. Yet when Price asks them what they think will happen to their libraries after they die, all the writers here are resigned and realistic: "I'm sure that after my death my books will be scattered just like my clothes and furniture," says Edmund White. If our books are our second bodies, dissolution is inevitable. What is hard to imagine is a future in which we have no bodies at all.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300170924
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2011
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 676,357
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 2.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Leah Price is professor of English at Harvard University. She is the author of The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel, Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture, and How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. She writes on old and new media for the New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, and the Boston Globe.

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