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Writers and Their Libraries; Fashion v. English

January 21, 2011 | by

I love reading authors talking about their own reading experiences—it seems like such a beautiful way to understand how and why they write. I recently read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” and I was wondering if you could think of any similar essays about the private libraries of great writers.

There’s a long tradition of writers writing about their libraries. Some of the first modern essays—by Michel de Montaigne and Sir Francis Bacon—are on that very subject. Among more recent publications, you might enjoy Anne Fadiman’s collection Ex Libris or Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. The trouble with people writing about their libraries is, well, every writer has one. It’s like writing about your left hand. Or your M.F.A. program. But McMurtry is a special case. If he had never written Lonesome Dove or The Last Picture Show, he would be famous—at least among collectors—as one of the country’s most respected dealers in used and rare books. When he writes about his library, he always has something interesting to say.

My younger sister wants to become a fashion designer when she’s older. How do I keep my cynical twenty-three-year-old English major at bay in order to support her dreams? —Anonymous

I have now reread your question four times: You did write “English major”! Support her now—soon she may be supporting you.

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7 COMMENTS

5 Comments

  1. Albert | January 21, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Here is another book you may enjoy. I loved it. The author takes you through a list of books he reads throughout the year. I couldn’t put it down.
    A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader’s Reflections on a Year of Books by Alberto Manguel.

  2. Christine | January 21, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    English major, you should encourage her to read intelligent books on fashion designers and to try to get her doing the fashion stuff asap so she can easily figure out if she’s cut out for it.

    Get her a sewing machine and see if she takes to it easily or not. If she discovers that she likes the wearing of clothes more than the creation of them, then encourage her to think of high paying jobs so she can afford to clothe herself.

    There is a great essay by Joseph Epstein on downsizing his personal library called “Books Don’t Furnish a Room” in his latest essay collection, “In a Cardboard Belt.”

  3. Mark Fox | January 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Regarding Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, it’s not just her essays that are enjoyable, but all the books about books she mentions. I tracked down at least a half dozen of the books she referenced, and loved them just as much.

  4. Jonathan | January 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    I’d recommend Francis Spufford’s elegaic memoir ‘The Child That Books Built’, in which he revisits his childhood library and the affecting tale of how he ended up spending so much time in imagined worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth. Also, take a look at the novelist Susan Hill’s memoir ‘Howard’s End Is On The Landing: A Year of Reading From Home’. Hill refrains from buying books for an entire year and resolves to stay in more with her existing collection. She makes the pretty sound argument that ‘a book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life’.

  5. Pale Ramón | January 21, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Here’s an article on authors and their libraries that appeared recently in Madrid’s El Pais. Nice photos.

    http://www.elpais.com/articulo/portada/huella/libros/elpepuculbab/20110108elpbabpor_3/Tes

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  2. [...] There’s a long tradition of writers writing about their libraries. Some of the first modern essays—by Michel de Montaigne and Sir Francis Bacon—are on that very subject. Among more recent publications, you might enjoy Anne Fadiman’s collection Ex Libris or Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. The trouble with people writing about their libraries is, well, every writer has one. It’s like writing about your left hand. Or your M.F.A. program. But McMurtry is a special case. If he had never written Lonesome Dove or The Last Picture Show, he would be famous—at least among collectors—as one of the country’s most respected dealers in used and rare books. When he writes about his library, he always has something interesting to say. Read More [...]

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