my-ideal-bookshelf1[xrr rating=3.5/5]If a thumbprint is an impression of the body upon objects in the world, then a bookshelf is the expression of the self upon one’s living space. More telling and concise than any Match.com profile could hope to be, a sneak peak at a person’s choice reading material can urge forward the process of soul-mating or cause one’s nose to tentatively wrinkle. Thessaly La Force, compiler and editor of My Ideal Bookshelf, introduces us to over 100 great minds – artists, writers, chefs, designers, scholars, scientists, musicians – and asks them to display their selections of essential books in a grand literary game of show and tell.

The book itself is oblong, accommodating for artist Jane Mount’s visual representation of each contributor’s “shelf” – books stacked in all different ways, some neatly, some disorganized, some sparse, some with Post-it notes sticking out reminding their owners of illuminating passages – drawing attention to the suggestion that the items as physical objects are worthy now of still life depiction. Indeed, in some ways My Ideal Bookshelf feels like a memorialization: as general readership is increasingly Nook-ified, and physical books are seen to be more like clutter than dignified objects, the idea of “ideal bookshelf” quickly elevates to that of “altar.” The books themselves aren’t the only holy things: several writers included little trinkets that also live on the ideal shelf – Francine Prose’s Chekhov collection is propped up by Where the Wild Things Are dolls and a tea set that she and her granddaughter play with. This compact space is a depository for treasure.

Composer Nico Muhly’s iPad bookshelf is the only entry that favors the digital format, and though his essay is honest and sensible about the anchoring aspects of physical books (addressing the points of space, travel-readiness, practicality and the fluidity of interest – and this shelf being a snapshot of what he’s into at the moment), it’s a downer (it just is!) to see that iPad orientation in a book that otherwise so fully embraces the (perhaps ever more fetishistic) joy bibliophiles find in their paperbound darlings.

Having said that, Paola Antonelli, senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, sees the digital age as a challenge to enliven our concepts of what physical books should be: “I’m continually getting rid of books… because I don’t think they’re good enough to deserve to take up space in my life… [T]hey might be great texts, fabulous additions to human knowledge, but they did not need to have their own paper body. I want physical books to have a concept.” It’s a difficult admission to some, to realize that not every book is worth the real estate it occupies.

Each panelist supplies their own page-long essay to accompany their bookshelf. Some take it as an opportunity to straight-up curate, others recount how they came to a love of reading and still others focus on how their selections impacted their perspectives on their chosen profession. Depth of insight varies. In a few essays, the books are barely even mentioned. Considering the limitation on essay length, Mount’s watercolors of the shelves are meant even more to stand on their own. Most fun is when the writer steps back and reflects on their newly created shelf with a spirit of self-discovery and, in some cases, embarrassed humor. Writer Andrew Sean Greer on his shelf: “Now that I look at it, I think, God, it looks gay! Maybe not to the untrained eye but c’mon: Frank O’Hara, William Maxwell, Colette and, of all the Graham Greene to choose, Travels with My Aunt! I might as well have put down Auntie Mame.” And now, I find myself wanting to read Andrew Sean Greer. I have made a friend.

Standout names are familiar (Dave Eggers, James Franco, Kim Gordon, David Sedaris, Thomas Keller, Tony Hawk) as are the usual suspects who appear in many of the shelves (Nabokov, Wharton, Salinger, Woolf, O’Connor), but even the most well-read, culturally connected intellectual will come up blank with probable frequency. Fear not. Patterns emerge and just like in a bookstore, after a bit of submersion, you can start to see what interests you floating to the top of the flood. My Ideal Bookshelf is sure to inspire those with a precocious mind and a commitment to preservation – think of it as a “no junk” book list. Is it any surprise it’s not available in a Kindle edition?

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