That seems to be the burning question preying on the minds of at least two publishers lately. Indulging in a bit of biblio-voyeurism, both Yale Press and Little, Brown have come out with anthologies that offer a–perhaps–Freudian glimpse into the minds of authors, artists, musicians and even chefs (they read more than cookbooks!) by playing an updated version of the old “what would you read if you were stranded on a desert island?” parlor game.
When setting up a new abode, what books come out of the packing cartons first?
Edited by Leah Price, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books examines the actual bookshelves of authors ranging from Alison Bechdel to Edmund White. Price’s interviews reveal the kind of surprising truths one can only glean through a keen analysis of the books these renowned authors revere as being influential to their development as writers. (Jonathan Lethem treasures Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita while Claire Messud is more of an Anna Karenina kind of gal.)
My Ideal Bookshelf, edited by Thessaly La Force and gorgeously illustrated by Jane Mount, takes a different approach. Beginning with the premise that the books we choose to display on our bookshelves say a lot about our self-image, La Force compiled an encyclopedic representation of authors and cultural icons, from chef Hugh Acheson to legal scholar Jonathan Zittrain, and asked them to select those books they feel best represent the people they’ve become. Dave Eggers credits Saul Bellow’s Herzog while Stephenie Meyer still has a fondness for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Who knew?
It’s a fun mental exercise, this defining oneself by the books one treasures. So, because I know you’re dying of curiosity, here are ten books I’d be sure to take along if I’m ever sent to that proverbial desert island.
The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner. Haunting story, gorgeously told.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. One of the best opening sentences ever.
Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith. Part of my heritage is in this book.
And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer. At the end of 1,176 pages, I wanted to start all over again.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Two words: “and yet…”
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Three words: “Ach! Honey mou!”
The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart. It made me laugh.
The Lovely Bonesby Alice Sebold. It made me cry.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It changed the way I live.
Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle. It changed the way I think.
So, there’s my bookshelf. What’s on yours?