The “Private” Library

Reading has been slow these last few weeks.  So my apologies, dear readers.  More reviews are in the works – promise.

I’ve been thinking a lot about personal libraries of late, and not just my own (though I do have design drawings for bookshelves I’m planning for the living room).  It started with Phantoms on the Bookshelves, which made me reconsider the value of a working over a collector’s library.  Now a friend is renovating a beach house and plans to dedicate an entire room to books.  Doesn’t that sound brilliant?  She loves to entertain, travels a lot and has friends from all over the world who will be coming to enjoy the ocean.  My solution?  A library built almost entirely of paperbacks that can be taken back and forth from the beach – with an emphasis on international and translated authors. Nothing to cerebral or precious.  Here’s a version of the perfect beach house library –

  • complete works of John le Carre & Ian Fleming,
  • rows of New Directions and Open Letter paperbacks
  • Philippe Claudel
  • Cesar Aira
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Roberto Bolano
  • Umberto Eco
  • some nonfiction books on World War 2 (because, for some unexplainable reason, even people who aren’t interested in history will read about WWII).
  • a copy of HhHH by Laurent Binet, perhaps?
  • back-issues of The Paris Review
  • every Calvin & Hobbes paperback collection ever published.
  • Alain Mabanckou
  • anything written by or about a Mitford sister
  • Moby Dick

The library may just exist in my imagination, but I’m working on a personalized bookplate (with a note on where to return lost books) as a surprise housewarming gift.

If Dan Simmon’s Drood is to be believed, and I can’t imagine why not, Charles Dickens would leave specially chosen books on the bedside tables of overnight guests.

Continuing on with the theme – on my journeys through the internet I discovered THE PRIVATE LIBRARY and Jumel Terrace Books.  Kurt Thometz curates and develops libraries for the rich and famous in NYC, with a client list that includes Diana Vreeland, Calvin Klein, Fran Lebowitz and Diane Sawyer.  His blog, though not updated as much as I’d like (pot meet kettle!), is filled with fascinating insights on books, book collecting and the inexhaustible topic of cataloging and organization.  Any bibliophile worthy of the name should have this page bookmarked.  As for Jumel Terrace – it’s a bookshop in Harlem that specializes in local history (by which I think they mean Harlem), African and African-American subjects/literature.  It’s also a Bed & Breakfast that shares an entrance with the bookshop.

The guestroom at our house has a fully stocked bookcase.  I’m in trouble if someone ever starts a book and then *shudder* wants to take it home to finish.

I know it’s an oddball topic.  Still.  Have you ever stayed at a hotel, inn, b&b or just a friend’s house that had an amazing library?

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Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet (translated from the French by Siân Reynolds)

The phantoms on the bookshelves probably aren’t what you think.  Page 110 of Jacques Bonnet’s book of essays defines fantôm as a “sheet or card inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf, or a document which has been borrowed.”  The chapter, from which the book takes its title, discusses the dismantling of libraries.  It is something the author takes very seriously.  Not surprising, as he is the owner of some 40,000 books.

What is unusual about his collecting mania is that, by his own account, he’s not really a collector.  He identifies himself primarily as a reader and, other than its sheer scope and the quantity of books it contains, explains that his library is neither special or valuable.  In fact, he appears to be striving to achieve the exact opposite.

… a monstrous personal library of several tens of thousands of books – not one of those bibliophile libraries containing works so valuable that their owner never opens them for fear of damaging them, no, I’m talking about a working library, the kind where you don’t hesitate to write on your books, or read the in the bath; a library that results from keeping everything you have ever read – including paperbacks and perhaps several editions of the same title – as well as the ones you mean to read one day.  A non-specialist library, or rather one specialized in so many areas that it becomes a general one.

Am I the only one who sees Jacques Bonnet is a role model?

Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a petit trésor that I recommend to anyone obsessed with the physical object which is a book.  It’s an elegant translation – written in a conversational style, discussing in depth the minutia of owning, caring for and housing (never over the bed!) a personal library.  Bonnet peppers his own experiences with stories about literary and historical figures who share his compulsion.  He explores the quirks and issues which only the book obsessed bond over.  Throughout the book his sharp sense of humor is on display.

These are the subjects that booklovers will discuss for hours (if not days, weeks and months).  My favorite chapter is called, simply, “Organizing the bookshelves”.  It contains a funny excerpt from the novel The Paper House which describes the main character, Carlos Bauer’s, aversion to placing two authors together on one shelf after they have quarreled in real life.

‘…for example, it was unthinkable to put a book by Borges next to one by García Lorca, whom the Argentine writer once described as “a professional Andalusian”.  And given the dreadful accusations of plagiarism between the two of them, he could not put something by Shakespeare next to a work by Marlowe…’

Bonnet also provides George Perec’s list of 12 methods of classification.  He then reviews their pros and cons.  Over the years I’ve attempted 6 of the 12.  My books have been shelved by category, alphabetically (at different times) by both author and title, and by color.  I’ve wrapped them in rice paper to create visual uniformity.  I’ve created completely personal systems with shelves dedicated to specific areas of interest: pandemics/disease (containing both fiction and non-fiction), philosophical (where Franny & Zooey cuddled with the Dalai Lama), and Sherlock Holmes (Doyle’s original stories, scholarly articles and pastiches).  To this day Faulkner still has his own little kiosk in my bedroom.   I’ve put series together and organized my art books by size.  The one classification I’ve yet to attempt is by geography… and I don’t foresee myself doing so in the foreseeable future.  Too much potential controversy.  Do you distinguish based on the setting of the action, the original language a book is written in or the author’s physical location (should I use her birthplace, where she spent her formative years or her current country of residence?  Should I care about dual citizenship?).

The fun doesn’t stop at organizing!  Once you shelve the books a whole new area opens: that of cataloging… *goosebumps* ….

(OK, I feel it necessary to state here – despite it being a collateral piece of information and adds nothing to this post – that I use Goodreads to track what I read, but for the actual cataloging of a personal library LibraryThing has, in my opinion, the slight edge).

…This 125 page book contains 9 delightful chapters on topics ranging from the internet, the act of reading, the accumulation of books and “Reading Pictures” (I love that!). At the end is a bibliography of all the titles mentioned and at the beginning is an introduction by James Salter.  Jacques Bonnet has something here to suit every bibliophile’s taste, regardless of whether you write in the margins or not.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves will appear on the bookshelves of a shop near you Thursday, July 5th.  Until then – I’m curious – what’s your favorite way to organize your books?

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York (2012)

ISBN:  978 1 59020 759 8

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A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (translated from the original French by Alison Anderson)

Biblio-porn is a category of books specifically targeting bibliophiles – the true reading fanatics. It caters to the fetishists among us by focusing on all things literary:  books, bookshops,  readers, etc. Biblio-porn revels in the written word. 

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé and translated by Alison Anderson is undoubtedly biblio-porn.

An heiress offers a bookshop manager the opportunity to join her in opening the shop of their (and our) dreams.  It will contain only good novels… the very finest novels ever written.  And to ensure that this is so a committee of eight anonymous authors will provide the list of titles which the shop will stock.  Every year the committee members will add to their lists – with the proprietors of The Good Novel determining and filling in any omissions.

We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure that he has taken. We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.

The shop is located on the rue Dupuytren, Paris and it’s an immediate success.  Like the eerie, disembodied voice tells us:  “Build it and they will come”.  Discriminating readers hail the shop as a temple of literature.  Others, though, attack it as elitist.  Of course the bibliophile immediately understands the critics are among those Philistines who make their living from the proliferation of less than great literature.  A war of taste is waged…. until the stakes are raised when three members of the secret committee are physically assaulted by a shadowy enemy.

Cossé fills page after page with cerebral discussions of novels, literature and publishing.  Along with scenes of people reading and buying books.  A Novel Bookstore is conversational in its tone, but it is a conversation containing multiple participants.  Voices weave in and out, interrupting and interjecting, dissecting events and creating a seamless, rhythmic narrative. The translator has done an excellent job in capturing the author’s spirit. By the book’s end you’ll have a list of must-read authors – as well as an almost spiritual yearning to visit this amazing bookshop and interact with the characters who congregate there.

“By the way,” asked Ivan, “have you come up with your pen name?”

Tailleberne gave a childlike smile.

“The Red,” he said.

“I see,” said Francesca.  “The name of your ancestor Erik.”

Van mentioned Ada, whose characters have coded names, in the spirit of the one chosen by Tailleberne, a sort of schoolboy reference to historical figures or the heroes of novels.  Tailleberne seemed delighted: “On my list, you find every novel by Nabokov.”

“You see!” said Francesca.  “When you agreed to be on the committee, I reread all your novels.  They made me think of a certain tone, a certain author, and I couldn’t remember who.  Of course, Nabokov.  It’s the way you write that has echoes of his style, the sad, cruel irony, the virtuosity, the charm.”

Tailleberne was bright red:  “You have made me very happy saying that.”

Two hours later, the three of them were still talking.

I can’t imagine A Novel Bookstore being set anywhere other than in Paris.  If it is nothing else, this book is very French.  What do I mean?  Take, for example, the two main protagonists: Francesca and Ivan.  Francesca is tall, elegant and tragic. Her eyes are, of course, sad and magnificent.

Her eyes were full of tears – her magnificent blue eyes, which were so fascinating that you could only look away after she had revealed herself to you, and then, when you thought of her, that is what you saw – her extraordinarily brilliant eyes, like the sapphires used for irises on certain statues.

Ivan is middle-aged, charming, handsome in that slightly rumpled and approachable way (think Gerard Depardieu or Jean Dujardin) characteristic of Frenchmen.  These two communicate to each other in earnest, philosophical tangents.  They are soul mates.  They secretly suffer, but even their suffering is attractive.

A Novel Bookstore is brilliant, smart and fun; beautifully written and impossible to put down. Interestingly, the mystery never really takes off.  Even the author seems to lose interest in it three-quarters of the way through.  This is not a thriller – and I’m not sure why it pretends to be.  The true subject of A Novel Bookstore is the love of literature and the physical manifestation of that love:  the bookstore called The Good Novel. The question of who is mounting the attacks is just a ruse – a hook – to draw us in.  It works, but it is not the reason we keep reading.

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 933 37282 2

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Emily Dickinson & Stephen Cobert – What Do They Have In Common? Absolutely Nothing!

It’s snowing in the Northeast.   Again.  Perfect reading weather.  Per fect non-fiction reading weather.

At the moment I’m working my way through Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson & Her Family’s Feuds.  It’s a shocking read!  I’ve learned from Gordon that the real Emily Dickinson (there’s no nice way to put this) was creepy.  And not in a cool, zombie kinda’ way. This book contradicts pretty much everything I know about Emily D. – which when I think about it isn’t much.   She’s one of those shadow figures in literature whose legend is much more pervasive than the actual facts.

400 pages is a big, thick book.  Not exactly a weekend read.  While I finish, I thought I’d share with you another (somewhat unusual) source of non-fiction book recommendations.  The satirist Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report.  I’ve only been watching the show for a month but, whether or not you agree with his politics, it is an inarguable fact that he interviews a lot of authors.  I couldn’t find a formal book club advertised,  like Oprah, so here are a few of my favorites TBR additions from recent shows.

  • Bernard-Henri Lévy & Michel Houellebecq.  Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World
  • Atul Gawande.  The Checklist Manifesto:  How To Get Things Right.
  • Fen Montaigne.  Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica.

I Hate End of the Year Lists (2010)

Yeah, I know. I’ll probably get kicked out of the union for saying that.  But it’s the truth.  So I thought that instead I’d follow the example of Beth Fish Reads and do more of a wrap-up post for the year rather than a Best Of List (though I will be including a short list of books that stood out for me in 2010).

  • In 2010 I reviewed approximately  57-59 books (that includes mini-reviews of multiple books in a single post)
  • I reviewed books by 50 different authors.  20 books were by female authors & 39 by male authors.
  • 21 Books were by authors from countries other than the United States.  I read and reviewed books from a total of 8 different countries.
  • Only 3 Books were translations. (I am so disappointed by that number!)
  • The N0n-Fiction to Fiction split was 15 to 42.
  • I attempted quite a few challenges last year… all of which fizzled.  Which led me to realize that I’m not particularly good at challenges.

My Top Reads for 2010 weren’t all published in 2010, but that is when I read and reviewed them.  They’re the books, usually by authors I wasn’t familiar with, which (in addition to being well written) got me excited.  Let’s face it – if you read this blog you’re probably something of a bibliophile.  So you understand how wonderful it is to get pitched a curveball every so often.  Well, this year at BookSexy was definitely a good year for curveballs!   In alphabetical order –

What’s coming in 2011?  Well, the plan is more of the same – with an emphasis on more.  I won’t bore you with the technical changes I’m planning for the blog, but here are a few goals/plans that should most directly/noticeably effect you, the reader.

  1. Shorter Reviews – I decided to keep the majority of my reviews to 750 words and under.  There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I noticed in my own blog reading habits that I start to drift & skim on the longer posts. (I’m still only at 402 words on this one, so pay attention!)
  2. Goodreads – Personally, I like Librarything better.  But the fact is that all the cool kids hang out over at Goodreads.  2011 is the year I’m going to dust off and start updating the BookSexy Goodreads page.  I also want to join an online reading group, and Goodreads has several that might be interesting.
  3. Join a Reading Group – Online or in person, I don’t care which.  I’ve wanted to join a reading group that meets regularly for the last 10 years and the time for procrastinating is over!  My local library group seems fairly active, and meets once a month after work, so that’s where I intend to start.
  4. More Non-Fiction and More Books in Translation – This was my biggest disappointment when I reviewed the 2010 reading list.  Expect to see more of both in the coming year.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program…

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