In Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books (Yale, $20), a new collection of photographs and interviews, editor Leah Price asks 13 authors, including three couples, about the books and bookcases in their homes.
Author Philip Pullman says that when moving into a new house eight years ago, "we thought that at last we'd have room for all our books. No chance!"
Rebecca Goldstein (Properties of Light: A Novel) and Stephen Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) share floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that consist of a matrix of white tubes.
"They make it easy to categorize and find books," Pinker says, "and they do away with the need for those awful things called bookends."
Stephen Carter (The Emperor of Ocean Park) says he's not troubled that his books are not, for the most part, arranged as in a library. ("How dull to have everything at one's fingertips!" he says.)
Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) says he's constantly arranging and rearranging his books — sometimes by "alphabetical absolution" and, at times, according to the "imperatives of genre, subject, size, color." On his shelves, Beckett stands next to Bellow, but The Phantom Tollboth, the children's classic by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, is next to Kafka.
Each writer featured in Unpacking My Library was asked to list the top 10 books on his or her bookshelves.
The lists are eclectic. Stephen Pinker’s list includes one of his wife’s Rebecca Goldstein’s novels, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, plus nine others.
Price, a Harvard English professor, found that most (although not all) of the authors read e-books, but they are not dismantling their bookcases or predicting the end of books as we've known them.
Philip Pullman (The Amber Spyglass) appreciates the convenience of his Kindle when traveling, but he mistrusts "any device whose continued usage depends on a vast, mysterious, and invisible infrastructure."
When "the big crash comes," he says, "I shall throw away my Kindle without a moment's regret; but my books will last as long as I do." (He's 65.)