Until recently I owned just two books that were composed of little else but pictures of people's bookshelves. Not nearly enough. One book I received last year for Christmas, a compendium of pictures of author's bookshelves, a sort of literary rubbernecking. The other book I received many Christmases ago, a coffee-table book of pictures of people reclining at home surrounded by their mammoth collections of books. The latter contains a picture I have never forgotten: Keith Richards in a chair in the center of a large home library, probably in a mansion in the British countryside, strumming a guitar and surrounded (you realize the closer you stare into the picture) by shelf after shelf of war histories, biographies of generals and tactical manuals.
As bookshelf porn goes, I had always assumed these were pretty hard-core tomes. But now that I own five books about bookshelves, I can safely say bookshelf porn can always get raunchier and more obsessive. For instance, before I get to the fifth (and best) of the new bookshelf books, "My Ideal Bookshelf," let me make a quick note about the third and fourth bookshelf books: "Bookshelf" by Alex Johnson (Thames & Hudson, $24.95) is less about the peeping-Tom qualities of a good bookshelf book than unmitigated jealousy. It is by a British author who, his bio says, "runs the Shedworking website for homeowners with garden offices," a remarkable job that certainly warrants a book on the art of garden offices, whatever those might be. Instead Johnson stays true to "Bookshelf." It is 268 pages of inventive shelving. You will want to buy most of these — the Pac-Man shelf, the hollow arrow with room for one title — but most will require many frequent flier miles to purchase.
In fact, on the evidence gleaned from these books and their (mostly) European designs, it's fair to say the United States lags far behind in bookshelf thinking and general bookshelf appreciation. Consider the words of Leslie Geddes-Brown, whose delightfully snobby "Books Do Furnish a Room" (Merrell, $39.95) — page after page of beautiful homes and apartments tastefully overstuffed with books — serves as a reminder that this country is so far removed from serious bookshelf connoisseurship that it might as well be a stinking pit of crap:
"In my view," Geddes-Brown writes, "there should be books in every room of the house, with the possible exception of the larder." Also: "Floor-to-ceiling bookcases are the answer for large, cold, unfriendly rooms." Also, she divides her time between a Regency library in London, a Georgian library in Suffolk and a Tuscan home with "two large bookcases." Compared to the grandiosity in her book, that house in Tuscany sounds low rent.
Albeit not as lousy as the South African magazine editor whose home she shows holding stacks of unshelved books — sorry, "heaps" — only to sincerely conclude: "This room forms part of a converted pigsty." What is wrong with this magazine editor? This person might as well run one of those horrible public library things, described here as "filled equally with tattered books and eccentric people keeping warm."
Still, she is a jerk because she cares.
"Bookshelf" and "Books Do Finish a Room" carry the stuffy air of desperation that only the truly worried tend to lug around, a frantic desire to hold onto something real in a world that would look at a picture of an apartment full of dogeared books and wonder if everything would fit better on a Kindle Fire HD. As someone who has run out of room for books and sits up at night wondering where another thin slant of shelving would possibly fit, I sympathize: In my apartment, there are several tall stacks of books waiting to be shelved, and while I could pile them high on a floor, it feels unseemly to not celebrate the color of the spines, the height of the pages, the sheer superficial thingness of the way a certain row of certain books looks on a certain shelf.
Apparently, that last feeling seems to be so increasingly rare these days that artist Jane Mount and editor Thessaly La Force have taken it upon themselves to attempt to bottle it. "My Ideal Bookshelf," the latest bookshelf book to finds its way into my bookshelves, is by far my favorite, so addicting and thoughtful it makes a solid mainstream case for bookshelf porn. Or murdering your Kindle.
The premise is simple: They asked writers, architects, musicians, chefs, designers and filmmakers to share their ideal bookshelf — "books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites." Each presumably took a picture and sent it to the authors; then Mount, whose paintings of bookshelves have been floating around literary blogs for years now, painted a cute little picture of each shelf, which comes accompanied by a brief essay that explains the importance or non-importance of the shelf.
The extraordinary self-consciousness of the exercise takes nothing away from it; in fact, the brevity of the explanations and charming, colorful indelibility of Mount's art seem to have concentrated the selections, weeded out pretensions. A surprising number of artists (and a few writers) here admit to selecting some of their choices mainly because they like the way these colors and spines and designs look stacked against each other.
"These are the spines that I've memorized," illustrator Leanne Shapton writes, "so for me making this bookshelf was as much an exercise in visual memory as it was a challenge to remember the contents." Interior designer Tom Delavan sighs at the iPad and writes: "Nothing is more beautiful than a wall of books."
What's remarkable about the results is how many shelves reflect the shelver's personality, or at least offer an opportunity for us to read all sorts of meanings into their selections: James Franco's shelf, befitting a guy who can't sit still (and probably carries around a slight inferiority complex, perhaps), is twice as large as the other shelves, stacked high with Hart Crane poems and Sylvia Plath poems and Joyce and Faulkner. David Sedaris' shelf reads like a list of the ingredients that make a David Sedaris: Three parts Tobias Wolff, two parts Dorothy Parker, a touch of Lorrie Moore, a dollop of Flannery O'Connor and a scoop of Fran Lebowitz.
Mount and La Force have nice taste, and their choice of participants (100 in all) reads like a smartly curated house party: author Jennifer Egan, chef David Chang, director Judd Apatow, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Malcolm Gladwell, artist William Wegman, etc. It's remarkable how often Moore pops up on lists; and Wolff; childhood favorite "The Once and Future King"; "The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis"; and "Pulphead" by it-journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Who knew Philip Gourevitch cared this much for "The Sibley Guide to Birds"? Simon Doonan, the great fashion commentator, tells a fun tale about why he included the obscure memoir ("Spend, Spend, Spend") of a British lottery winner in the 1960s who very publicly self-destructed and found herself penniless. There's even a bit of off-handed gossip: James Patterson includes Stephen King's "Different Seasons" as an olive branch between estranged mainstream millionaires: "Stephen King has been busting my chops for years."
The point is, as much as "My Ideal Bookshelf" resembles a novelty, it's the most vital of volumes: a book that keeps you reading, that strips away the suggestion-bots on Amazon and remembers that my bookshelf will never be yours. Not to give anything away, but I plan to buy this book for everyone I know this Christmas.
Just please, don't shelve it in the larder.
Christopher Borrelli is a Tribune features reporter.
"My Ideal Bookshelf"
Jane Mount, art, and Thessaly La Force, editor, Little, Brown, 240 pages, $24.99