Brain Pickings

My Ideal Bookshelf: Portraits of Famous Creators Through the Spines of Their Favorite Books

by

Reverse-engineering identity through the love of books.

In 2007, artist and illustrator Jane Mount began painting “portraits of people through the spines of their books” — those aspirational bookshelves we all hold in our heads (and, ideally, on our walls), full of all the books that helped us discover and rediscover who we are, what we stand for, and what we’d like to become. A kind of book spine poetry of identity. In 2010, she paired with Paris Review writer Thessaly La Force and the two asked more than a hundred of today’s most exciting creators — writers, artists, designers, critics, filmmakers, chefs, architects — what those favorite, timeless books were for them. Thus, My Ideal Bookshelf * (public library) was born — a magnificent collection of Mount’s illustrated “portraits” of these modern-day icons, alongside short essays by each contributor explaining why the books included are meaningful to him or her. Besides the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of peeking inside the personal libraries of great minds, the project is at once a celebration of bibliophilia and a testament to the fact that the most interesting people are woven of incredibly eclectic influences.

La Force offers a necessary disclaimer in the introduction:

So much depends on where you, the reader, are — physically and metaphorically — when you decide to pick up a book and give it a chance. Which explains why there’s no such thing as one ideal bookshelf; there is no ur-bookshelf. It would be a mistake to try to read this book with that goal in mind. In the end., the one element that links all the ideal bookshelves in these pages is the never-ending search. e’re all still hunting, still hoping to discover one more book that we’ll love and treasure for the rest of our lives.

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon speaks to the influence ecosystem that William Gibson once so eloquently termed “personal microculture” and captures the essence of combinatorial creativity:

Your style is still going to be constructed out of the material that you have inherited, but it’s going to be put together in some way that has, hopefully, never quite been heard before.

Maira Kalman

The ever-wise, ever-delightful Maira Kalman channels her love of libraries:

I love the architecture of public libraries, the very large windows. Inside it’s polished, it’s quiet; during the day, the sun is usually streaming through one room or another. And all the people are sitting there together, but they’re all going to completely different places through the books they’re reading.

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan contemplates the substance of life:

My goal as a writer is to do as much as possible at one time. Life itself is so cacophonous and complex. It’s not that I want to create a cacophony, but I want to do justice to the complexity around us. I don’t want to oversimplify it. I want to take one thing and build from that, and then keep building, until I begin to approximate the complexity of the world and our perceptions of it.

Paola Antonelli

MoMA’s Paola Antonelli considers a book’s content in contrast to its thing-ness:

Hello World is a new book by Alice Rawsthorn, the one and only, the best design critic in the entire world. She keeps the banner of design flying high. Irma Boom designed it, and Irma is very simply the best book designer alive. I personally love reading books electronically. I proudly have a big wall of books in my apartment, but I’m continually getting rid of books that get on my nerves because I don’t think they’re good enough to deserve to take up space in my life. You can walk into a bookstore and find that 95 percent of the books on display might as well have been directly electronic. Mind you, they 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. Irma designs objects. her books are breathtaking as things.

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem winks at the cumulative usefulness of useless knowledge:

The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passes the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it — it’s just an excellent way to waste your life.

Jakob Trollbäck

Designer Jakob Trollbäck explores books as a generative force:

These books are about transformation. I think that, ultimately, evolution is about transformation, and creativity is a necessary force of evolution.

Christoph Niemann

Illustrator extraordinaire Christoph Niemann speaks to the indispensable value of influence and considers David Foster Wallace as a creative echelon:

I think the most successful illustrations are those that build on some other reference. You can’t completely reinvent something.

[…]

For me, David Foster Wallace is almost painful to read. It’s like he’s mumbling. You think he’s just writing down every single idea that comes into his head, but then when you reach the end, you realize that every sentence has been perfectly composed. I wish I could find something in his work that I could put to use in my own.

Patti Smith

The one and only Patti Smith touches on that quality of literature that makes it the original “Internet” of hyperlinked discovery:

I longed to read everything I possibly could, and the things I read in turn produced new yearnings.

David Sedaris

David Sedaris channels Henry Miller:

I really think you can’t progress as a writer unless you read, and the ideal time to read is when you can read generously. It didn’t even occur to me that I could have a book of my own in the library someday. That’s how you should read.

Stefan Sagmeister

Design and typography maestro Stefan Sagmeister draws a parallel between his design process and his book selection:

As a designer, I often use a process described by the Maltese philosopher Edward de Bono. He suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random objet as a point of departure. So, let’s say I have to design a pen. Instead of looking at other pens, and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is, and so on and so forth, I’ll consider, say — I’m in a hotel room right now — beadspreads.

Alex Ross

Wrier and critic Alex Ross — whose recent New Yorker piece on the history of the LGBT movement is a must-read — worries about the future of criticism:

All criticism is in danger right now. … Whether in the future there will be any magazines or newspapers with critics on staff is an open question. But as long as writers remain true to their passions and identify a language that’s faithful to those passions, they will find an audience for their writing.

Mary Karr

Mary Karr, calculatedly wicked yet disarmingly wise as ever, quips:

If you want to write, don’t err by setting the bar too low. Maybe you want to write like Emily Dickinson. Maybe you want to write like Nabokov. Just be willing, at the end of the day, to look at your work and say, ‘That’s not as good as Nabokov, but boy, it’s as good as I could make it today.’ Fall in love with books and with modes of being. I just spent a pile of money I can’t afford on opera tickets to see Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Think of all the cocaine I could have bought with that eight hundred dollars! Yet here I am blowing it to go sit in a room with a bunch of stiffs next Tuesday night. I’m in love, I can’t help it.

Jen Bekman

20×200 founder Jen Bekman reflects on her formative reading in a comment rather ironic in the context of this footnote regarding the book:

I read Ways of Seeing in media studies when I was in college, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Berger writes about how reproductions of the Mona Lisa have only strengthened the iconic value of the original painting. I’m very much on board with that idea. Scarcity continues to be one of the primary drivers of value in the art world, but I’m a firm believer in access and the power of building an audience. I’m a huge champion of prints and multiples: I always say that the artist’s editions we’re selling at 20×200 enhance the value of the limited-edition works, rather than diminishing it. It’s been satisfying to see that assertion powered true as the business has matured.

The inimitable book cover designer Coralie Bickford Smith considers the private allure of her work, as well as its public aspiration:

I love the fact that I get to repackage amazing literature that has stood the test of time. I really couldn’t be designing anything more important. The written word means so much to me. If I design a cover that gets people to pick up a book, then I’ve done my job. I want the younger generation to fall in love with books like Jane Eyre again. That’s why I do what I do.

Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler, better-known as Lemony Snicket, confesses:

I started writing for children because someone asked me to. I thought it was a different skill set, even though it’s really not. I asked the editor to send me a bunch of children’s books that the publishing house had published. And they were all terrible. Every single one of them. Which inspired me.

Pico Iyer

But perhaps most poignant of all, or at least most resonant with my own relationship with books, is writer Pico Iyer:

What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart. The books on my shelf never asked to come together, and they would not trust or want to listen to one another; but each is a piece of a stained-glass whole without which I couldn’t make sense to myself, or to the world outside.

For the ultimate book-lover’s treat, Jane will paint your ideal bookshelf.

* * *

And now for the not-so-footnotey footnote: In case you’re wondering why you can’t see any of Jane’s gorgeous bookshelf paintings properly reproduced here for a taste — what you do see are photographs of the book I took and edited myself in lieu of proper artwork — it is because the publisher of the book, Little, Brown and Company, informed me I could only use “three images (plus the author photos and jacket images) for free.” If I wanted more (“wanted,” of course, meaning “wanted to speak highly of their book in front of a few million of my readers for free“), their publicist kindly offered to “get [their] subsidiary rights department involved, and have them create a contract and some kind of fee.”

It would’ve been easy to indulge the instinct to roll my eyes at this laughable anachronism, shrug off the publisher’s voluntary self-deportation from relevance, and refuse to feature the book in righteous indignation. But given how much I want to support Thessaly and Jane’s wonderful work, how much I respect the remarkable roster of contributors, many of whom I know personally, and how much the project sings to my own bibliophile heart, that wouldn’t have been the answer. Instead, I choose to write about the book, but also refuse to perpetuate this hideous underbelly of the old-world publishing pantheon by virtue of tacit silence.

Certainly, publishers are for-profit entities that need to make money in order to exist — as an enormous lover of books, I know this is essential for allowing the printed page to survive and flourish. But it is a sign of great insecurity in the value proposition of your product when you have to place artificial barriers between it and its core user. As I pointed out to the Little Brown publicist, in seven years of doing what I do, one thing has become blatantly apparent to me: For the readers who savor the joy of a beautiful book, seeing a few images from it on a computer or mobile screen, be they three or three hundred, detracts absolutely nothing from the desire to hold that book in their hands, to own it, to call it theirs — if anything, it amplifies that desire by virtue of the tease; and those for whom the few web images suffice would not have bought the book anyway.

Yes, this is an immeasurably wonderful project and a beautiful book. And, yes, it lives in an antiquated paradigm that serves neither authors nor their readers but is instead unapologetic about serving solely the publishers’ commercial interests. But, no, these don’t have to remain a tradeoff. Therein lies the challenge — and, likely, the death sentence — of the old-school publishing industry: As long as serving the corporate bottom line and serving the real stakeholders in literature — writers and readers — continue to be a binary choice, the business of books will remain segregated from the joy of books. And that truly serves no one in the long run.

To the authors and artists caught in this toxic paradigm and its false choice between going with a big publisher and never reaching an audience, I say: Take heart — there are people who will gladly support you and help you find your readers, not at the cost of your integrity or your soul, and there are publishers — not many, but some — who get this intricate ecosystem and believe wholeheartedly in the intrinsic value of what they create, without those insecure artificial mechanisms of feigning said value.

To the readers, the people like you and me who love books and buy books and want to see books survive, I say: Remember that every purchase is a vote for the future you’d like to see, not just creatively and culturally, by virtue of the authors you support, but also in terms of the underlying models that make it all possible.

To the Little, Browns of the world, I say: Good night, and good luck.

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