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The Virtues of Shelf-lessness – The New York Times

The ledge above my desk is home to spirit animals (keeping in mind that selecting an arctic fox as one’s spirit animal does not make one an arctic fox). Here are essay collections by David Sedaris, Joan Didion, Ian Frazier, Jenny Diski and Nora Ephron. Here is fiction by Lorrie Moore, George Saunders and Richard Yates. The books above my sofa relax me on sight, or else they remind me of some pleasant time during which I acquired them. Donna Tartt, John Cheever, Colum McCann, Curtis Sittenfeld, Isaac Babel (listen, some people are relaxed by Isaac Babel). The books above the TV act as a kind of antidote to the TV. Here, full names need not apply. Woolf, Roth, Dostoyevsky, Baldwin, Dickens, Nabokov, Capote. The books in the bedroom I can really be myself around. These are books I don’t mind watching me sleep — a creepy bar met by the likes of Katherine Mansfield, Russell Banks, Edna Ferber, Don DeLillo and Joy Williams.

But perhaps the most meaningfully located are the books perched above the chair where I sit when I can’t write. The emergency chair. It’s an uncomfortable Victorian thing upholstered in anemic pea green. I bought it off an artist and like to delude myself into thinking it has good juju. On the ledge above the chair are galleys — early-bound work distributed for press coverage — by contemporary giants like Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith and Bret Easton Ellis. Many of them still contain the letters from the publishers stuck inside them. The language is peppered with introductory adjectives, but otherwise it’s pretty swagger-free. It’s more hopeful. It tiptoes around the prospect of greatness in a way that seems comical in retrospect — a reminder that no one was born a sure thing.

Susan Sontag, who arranged her books by literary tradition (e.g. Russian literature) and then chronology, would scoff at my mushy method. So would James Wood, who has written that “in any private library the totality of books is meaningful, while each individual volume is relatively meaningless.” Certainly a lifetime of taste is more illuminating than whatever one read last week. In interviews, the question of “desert island” books is difficult for writers to answer, not because it’s complex but because it’s misrepresentative. I may not have a specific, contextualized association with every title in my possession, but most have had a direct impact. And because of the way they’re positioned, they continue to.

Believe me, it shocks no one more than me, who traffics in sarcasm, that I’m sitting here (literally, under an unlikely canopy of Lydia Millet and Charlie Smith) extolling the virtues of a sentimental library. And as a person who renounces fads — no pastel pyramids for me, thank you — part of me still aspires to a more traditional approach. The alphabet is less work, for one. And it’s comforting to think that, like emotions themselves, books can be corralled by time and order. Put in their place. Intellectualized. Made easier for new people to access. Maybe all I really need is a bigger apartment.

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