The Daily

Author Archive

Shelf-Conscious

December 27, 2012 | by

Chris Killip, 'The Library of Chained Books,' Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, UK, 1992.

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.

“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”

There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.

There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves. Read More »

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Like: Facebook and Schadenfreude

October 30, 2012 | by

I was the 501st person to join Facebook. The inimitable Hatty Hong, number 499, urged me on from her desk across our freshman dorm room. I hardly used it the first few months because so few others were active, and as a senior I logged on to look at dead people’s profiles. Or to click through photographs of myself to remember where my time went. I didn’t think it was appropriate to remain a member after graduation. Facebook was something you were to outgrow, like Tommy Girl perfume or AOL Instant Messenger. Five years since graduation, I use it more now than ever.

As an elder user, I can say one thing with authority: When it comes to disseminating news about Facebook, few media are more effective than Facebook itself. That’s how I came to learn that longtime users like me are more likely to believe others happier than themselves. At least according to a study from Utah Valley University. The longer one has used Facebook, they found, the more likely he or she is to recall other people’s positive posts: the stunning honeymoon in Greece of a girl you never really knew in high school—and whose last name now looks, well, Greek; a list of very impressive graduate school acceptances, the likes of which prompted one Awl writer to dash off a lesson in Facebook manners. Read More »

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On Homesickness

November 2, 2011 | by

'The Soldier's Dream of Home,' a Currier & Ives lithograph produced during the Civil War, was one sign of the great attention that soldiers' homesickness received. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

A few weeks ago I found myself accidentally enacting the drama of a book I was reading. The book was Homesickness: An American History, and I was reading it on the subway, somewhat embarrassed by the title, which, held up right in front of my face, was like a sign saying: Here in New York, I can’t cut it. I comforted myself with the idea that I was only a few stops from home, where I could read safe from potential pity. But when I got to my door, I discovered that I’d locked myself out.

I looked up at my windows. I wished I could use the bathroom, foreign bathrooms costing at least a coffee. But it struck me that I didn’t long to be in my apartment. My place, with its card table in the kitchen and mattress on the floor, is unsettled—I would feel as dislocated inside of it as out. I can’t imagine what feeling settled here would look like; the only settled place I’m familiar with is the home where I grew up.

How long does it take to cultivate the feeling of home? I’ve been in New York for three years, on the East Coast for eight, and I’ve never suffered from acute homesickness. But still, when I’m called to define “home,” I think of El Granada, a town of 5,436 that staked itself twenty-six miles south of San Francisco down the coast. I mean staked quite literally: between 1906 and 1909, Ocean Shore Railway, which was building tracks from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along what is now Highway 1, planted thousands of fast-growing, blue gum eucalyptuses with the hopes of flipping El Granada into a seaside resort for train-traveling San Franciscans. The railroad company also commissioned the eminent architect and city planner Daniel Burnham (famous for the Flatiron building) to plan the streets. They go in two directions, up the hills and around them, so that it looks from above as if a four-square-mile spider web has been draped over the thousands of trees. But the dream of El Granada was not to be. Two years later the railway company collapsed. The tracks were abandoned. Some speculators bought land, but the place never really caught on until computers did in the late eighties and nineties, and intrepid commuters from Silicon Valley bought BMWs and began building houses. Read More »

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