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Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Ideal Bookshelf

A few days ago I discovered a new book at the library called My Ideal Bookshelf. The editor, Thessaly La Force, interviewed 100 leading cultural figures (writers, artists, musicians, actors, chefs, and fashion designers among them) and asked them to share their ideal bookshelf. "Ideal" was defined as "books that define their dreams and ambitions and in many ways helped them find their way in the world."

It is an intriguing premise, both as a window into a large group of very successful people and as a challenge to each of us to look hard at what we would place on our own ideal bookshelf. We all have long-time favorites that have influenced us throughout our lives and shaped how we see the world. We also have books that we discover at a point of specific need we may not have even recognized (when the reader is ready, the book will appear, to paraphrase the Zen saying). All of them impact who we are.

My Ideal Bookshelf is a compelling combination of words and art, and it explores what books mean to the people included in the volume using both. Each contributor was interviewed about the books they chose for their ideal shelf, and we learn what the books meant to them. This would have been interesting enough, but the editor took it a step further. She brought in artist Jane Mount to illustrate each person's bookshelf, exactly as they set it up for the interview.

The result of these illustrations is both a presentation of the book-as-object and a further glimpse into the person who chose them. Some arranged their books alphabetically, as you would in a store or library, while some had them stacked haphazardly in a pile. Some had very few volumes, while others packed almost more than the artist could fit on the page. And some, particularly the artists, had them arranged in a way that made the sizes of the books or the colors of the spines most pleasing to the eye.

As for the actual books chosen, they were as varied as the people interviewed. There was a consistent representation of authors like Hemingway, Nabokov, and Garcia Marquez, as you would expect. But there were a huge number of titles I had never even heard of, and I consider myself fairly well-read. That's the other joy of this book; it can lead you to books you never knew you wanted to read.

I encourage all book lovers to pick up My Ideal Bookshelf, and check out the books chosen by people like Jennifer Egan, David Sedaris, James Patterson, Tony Hawk, Michael Chabon, and 95 others. And while you're at it, why not take a little time and ask yourself what books you would put on your ideal bookshelf, the ones that say the most about you and who you are. It's self-examination of the best kind.

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