(I spotted this in my neighborhood recently.) Can’t find a brick? Use some old books to prop up your air conditioner!
For about a year, the books in our apartment threatened to swallow my husband and me. Adding another bookcase, like adding another lane to an already clogged freeway, didn't help--it only encouraged us to read more, and the piles kept growing. During the holidays, it got so bad that those stored on top of a shelf in the living room covered most of the framed French Connection poster on the wall above it; they even threatened to push the lamp off the edge. The books on top of the small shelf in the bedroom nearly blocked the light switch; soon we would either have to paw through the dark, or sleep with the lights on. Something had to be done. Although I agreed with Patrick that we needed more space, I was resistant to a book purge. For one, I like books-as-interior-decoration. Their uniformity of shape contrasts well with their variation in color (unless, you're one of these rubes who stores their books spine-in), and bookends are so elegant (I cherish my brass dogs from Restoration Hardware.) Plus, every few weeks I can avoid writing by rearranging and dusting the piles of novels scattered in each room. Why write my own when I have all of these published ones to keep me company? I also felt strongly that our books revealed to visitors our values and our identities; the fact that we were swimming in them emphasized their importance in our lives. The first thing I look at when I walk into someone's home is their bookshelf. That is, if they've got any--lord help me. On his goodreads profile, my friend Brian writes, "If you go home with someone, and they don't have any books, don't fuck 'em!" This has always struck me as wise advice for the literary bachelor or bachelorette, and I'd like to extend it further, away from the romantic and sexual: if you don't read, I don't want to be your friend...I don't even want you to serve me a drink at a bar. If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren't books, or--oh no!--not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick? If my copy of Handmaid's Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren't on display, how would anyone understand us? Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb. I've got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov. Right before Christmas, my father came over for dinner and with a sneer told us we should get rid of our library. "You're not actually going to re-read these, are you?" he asked. It should come as no surprise that he isn't a reader (I wish I could say, "If you don't read, I don't want to be your daughter"...but, alas, I have no choice in the matter.) Patrick thought my dad had a point; a lot of these books were just sitting on the shelves, untouched. We should try to get rid of half of our books, he said after my father left. "But I need them for teaching!" I cried. I teach classes from home, and I love to allude to a book during workshop, and then, in the next moment, hand it to the student. "You're not a librarian," Patrick replied, that witty asshole. So, one Sunday, we began. My first idea was that we would do each other's dirty work. I would purge the books that belonged to Patrick, and he would purge mine. Nothing would leave the apartment without the other's consent, but it was a good way to be objective about the matter. Patrick had no idea how much I'd enjoyed A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, so it clearly couldn't mean all that much to me. That stung--but he was right, and into the exit line it went. It wasn't long before we began purging our own books, voluntarily. We were even a little frenzied. It was liberating, for instance, to finally give away Fortress of Solitude, which I must now publicly admit, I didn't like as much as everyone else did. It felt okay to pull my copy of Tom Jones from the shelf; if someone wanted to assume I hadn't read it, let them. Only I held the history of my reading past, of the semesters of college courses I diligently attended, reading everything (everything!) on the syllabus, taking sometimes useful, but more often ineffectual, notes in the margins. I didn't need the books themselves to remember my reader-selves of yesteryear. The pile of books to be purged grew larger and larger, covering the kitchen table, and the four chairs as well. The shelves were thinning out. I began to get a little spiritual about things. I liked the idea of passing on all these stories to new readers. Let them live on! I was in the service of humanity now! Of course, we didn't get rid of everything (sorry, humanity). Our favorites remained. Not only were Margaret Atwood and Robert Caro safe, so were Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Sam Lipsyte, James Joyce, and Anne Carson... and these were just a few of the authors who survived. Patrick and I had fun rearranging our two "favorites" shelves, one for long-beloved books, and one for newer books that had recently captured our imagination and hearts. We created a shelf specifically for authors we knew personally, from Kiki Petrosino to John Haskell; next time someone takes a gander at the collection, I am totally going to brag. We also migrated most of our poetry from the front of the apartment to the bedroom. (Upon moving in, we thought we might want to pull out a collection during a dinner party, to enliven it with a verse or two, but that never happened. Now, it seems more romantic and delicious to sleep and dream next to poems, rather than eat and surf the web next to them.) Our best change is "The Unread" (either a book section or the latest horror flick, coming to a theatre near you). I am happy to say, it's only a short pile, and it's in no danger of blocking that movie poster. This pile is easy to access, and usefully recriminating; it's difficult to defend a new book purchase when we have all of these waiting for us. Since the purge, I have already read one of these books (Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk) , and I'm halfway through another (The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris). It's been a little over a week since we've cleaned out and rearranged our bookshelves. To my surprise, I don't grieve the change. Three people have commented on how clean the place looks, and not one has noticed the lack of books. It's like a flattering new haircut that no one sees--they just think you look great. So where, you ask, did we send all of our unwanted books? Someone else might have tried to sell them online, or at a used bookstore, or scheduled appointments with literary-minded friends (the only kind worth having, as I've previously established). But we weren't so prepared: we loaded them into garbage bags and dropped them off at our local Goodwill on Hollywood Blvd. If you head over there soon, you will certainly find some gems.
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British artist Su Blackwell's wonderful book-cut sculpturesDischarged books from the Stanford library find new life as a barPart Joseph Cornell box, part book about Joseph Cornell boxes (for more info)A selection of works by Georgia Russell, Cara Borer, and other artists whose medium is booksGerman designer Werner Aisslinger's storage modules, made of books, and then there's Housefish's shelves made of booksSecret hiding place book-boxesDonald Lipski's statue for the Kansas City Public LibraryJ. Crew's variations on the chic librarian: Library bookshelf cardigan & library charm braceletRaymond Waites library wallpaper & a bookcase "mural"... And finally: Ever wanted a marble bust of Schiller? Burns? Voltaire, Darwin, Plato, or Dante? Look no furtherMore Books as Objects: Limited Editions, Artifacts and Armaments, Books by the Foot, The Ultimate Prop
Last winter I found myself lost in a draft of a novel, unable to keep track of the events in my book and getting hung up on unimportant logistical details. I felt kind of stupid because my story was simple, one that only took place over a few months in 1996. I had a list of scenes and an outline of what I had written but the only way I could really get my bearings was to Google old lunar calendars. Finally, I took a big piece of paper from my son’s easel and drew a three-month calendar that I could look at as I worked. In the calendar squares I wrote the events of the story, like a diary. After I did that, it was much easier to write. It was as if my brain could finally relax once the events of the story were organized in a familiar way. Shortly after I drew this calendar, I read an interview with Michelle Huneven on this site and smiled in recognition when she explained that “the difference between short stories and novels is, with a novel, sooner or later you’re on the floor with a pad of paper making timelines and calendars and family trees.” Then, last fall, I was reading The Millions interview with Emily St. John Mandel and was fascinated by the spreadsheet she created to organize her novel Station Eleven. I got curious about the other visual aids that novelists create to manage their books, so I asked around and gathered a variety of notebook pages, diagrams, and timelines. In my search for material, I was often stymied by two factors: 1) writers had thrown out notes and materials related to finished novels and 2) writers were nervous about sharing their notes, especially for works-in-progress. I can certainly understand this vulnerability, and in fact I still feel a little silly about the calendar I’ve shared above. I doubt I would feel so foolish if I were working on a biography or reporting a complicated story from a variety of sources. But there’s something about making a diagram or calendar for an imagined world that feels over-the-top or maybe borderline delusional. So, I thank the writers below for sharing (and saving!) their peculiar and illuminating designs. And if you’re in the midst of a novel now, and stuck, maybe the answer is not to keep typing but to get a blank piece of paper and start drawing. Claire Cameron, notebook pages for The Bear I am always underlining, clipping and making notes. Sometimes I decide that it's time to put some of these little bits of paper into a notebook. I like to think that I'm working on my visual side, but lately I've realized that I'm actually thinking. When my hands are busy, my mind is free to run. These are a couple pages that I made around the time I was writing my recent novel, The Bear. It's a survival story of two young kids who are lost in the wilderness after their parents are killed by a black bear. [caption id="attachment_73762" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Photo credits, from top: Man with Bandage (1968) from Fred Herzog: Photographs; Kotjebi “fluttering swallows” children in North Korea.[/caption] This page gave me a feel for the mix of vulnerability and resilience of the kids in The Bear. I read about Kotjebi or 'fluttering swallows' -- street kids in North Korea. Apparently they are often seen with a tube of toothpaste in hand as they believe it will help with the constant indigestion that comes from garbage-based diets. It's crushing to think about, but it's also the opposite of helpless. The kids are forming their own culture to help them survive. The stark, blocked composition in the Herzog photo spoke to me of a certain toughness. And that women. No one is going to mess with her, right? [caption id="attachment_73766" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Photo credits, clockwise from top left: The Tent by Tom Thompson, I cut it from a calendar from the McMichael Gallery; a slightly smaller Coleman cooler, I’ve lost track of who owns this particular one; a purple flower; Cat Power; a note, typical of the specimens that I find on my bedside table each morning ; Cat Power again.[/caption] The Bear ends with a short epilogue where the grown kids revisit the site of the bear attack. I knew the exact note that I wanted to hit -- I could hear it -- but I couldn't find it in my keyboard. I made this page while I was thrashing through that part of the edit. I thought, what do I know? And I stuck that all on a page. Lauren Groff, notebook pages for Fates and Furies (forthcoming from Riverhead, September 2015.) This is a page of my notebook that I used in writing my next novel, Fates and Furies. I've thrown out the enormous eight foot square wall-maps of incident and character that I relied on during the first three years of writing this novel; this page from my notebook is from just after I discovered I hadn't been writing the two slender novels I thought I'd been writing, but rather one (much fatter) novel. I love revising, but am easily overwhelmed, and I have to make lists and only concentrate on one change at a time to get through it all. Though this page is incomprehensible to me now (more god? Fat man -- & Dwight?), at the time it was my roadmap for the things I needed to do, from most urgent to least. The drawing under the notebook was given to me by my next door neighbor and friend, the kick-ass cartoonist Leela Corman, and it powered me through finishing the manuscript. Tania James, notebook page for The Tusk That Did the Damage I wrote a novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, that involves three different perspectives, that of an elephant, a filmmaker, and a poacher's brother. Even with these differing perspectives, I wanted to keep the story flowing forward, to have the tail end of one section feed into the next. Hence my predilection for arrows. Scott Cheshire, notes from High as the Horses' Bridles I found this page, one of about five pages I used to occasionally and desperately display on my desk because they apparently helped me keep things "in order." Scrawled with phrases like "cell-phone logic," "truth!?," and "BOIL X2," I have no idea what they mean anymore. They look embarrassingly like those pieces of paper you see on cop shows, pinned to walls behind the desk of a brainy detective working on a tough case. My favorite phrase from this page: "This is the thing -- Joe." Joe is underlined, and circled. I have no idea who he is. Katherine Hill, timeline for The Violet Hour I began this timeline to keep track of all the narratives I'd started when I was drafting The Violet Hour. The early versions were really messy and full of question marks and speculations. But by the time I was making my final revisions, the timeline had grown shorter and tighter, and I was using it as a kind of retrospective blueprint: a file I could reference to make sure everything in the world of the novel was in line. It's a document of the novel's events -- or most of them -- but it's also, in a very real way, a document of the novel's process. By the time it was done, I knew the novel was basically done, too. Alexander Chee, drawing for The Queen of the Night (forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 2016) This is a drawing I made in the back of my copy of The Kill by Emile Zola, which I was reading for research at the time. One of the hardest things for me to figure out with The Queen of the Night was how to structure the story. The novel is about a woman searching her memories of her past, identities she's adopted and discarded in order to survive a world that wasn't made for her to survive in. My narrator is the kind of woman I would glimpse in little glances to the side in novels like The Kill, and I wanted to make a novel that put her at the center. But it is very tricky to write a novel about someone who lies to themselves and others in order to live -- telling the truth even to herself is dangerous. When I did this, I had written several drafts, writing and then discarding sections until I realized the discard file -- where I saved everything -- was the novel. It was a novel composed out of rejected selves. This drawing then was one attempt to get the structure right. It's not what ultimately happened for the structure, it's a middle version I moved on from, but it helped me get there. I took a learning styles test once that told me I was a visual mathematician, and while I doubted it at the time, I think that it is true. I first did it to diagram a novel whose structure I was trying to understand while working on my first novel. I do it on chalkboards with my students now, to explain the way the force of the narrative moves the reader's attention. Looking at this now, I might have to get this made into a t-shirt to wear while on tour. Michelle Huneven, binder notes for a work-in-progress I am writing a novel about a church’s search for a new minister. I am following an actual process as determined by the denomination, which means I have a series of events in a set order that I have to somehow make dramatically interesting. I have all of these pamphlets and brochures and guidelines outlining the process; I have timelines, I have interviews with people who’ve conducted searches and those who’ve been hired (or not). And then, I have seven characters on the search committee who all have stuff going on in their lives... For a long time I had two or three manila folders of notes and any number of “notes for novel” files on my computer. A good portion of my writing day was spent trolling through these files for the nugget I needed, which was fine for a while because it familiarized me with all the stray bits I’d accumulated. Then, I started writing the book itself by hand on legal pads. And not on the same legal pad. Which meant that, when I wanted to write, I had to go through various legal pads to find where I wanted to work. That, too, was fine for a while, because I was constantly reviewing what I’d done. But at a certain point the accumulated disorder had me whimpering. Down to the floor I went. I had inherited my mothers three-hole punch (she was an elementary school teacher), and I had an empty three-ring binder sitting around, so I printed out all the notes on my computer, and put them in the binder with all my other notes and pertinent papers. Soon, it came clear that having research and writing in one binder was inefficient -- too much paging back in forth. So it was off to Office Depot, where I bought more binders and file dividers, and spent some very happy hours on the floor punching holes and organizing. (Since then, I also created separate binders for short stories and journalism...and, yes, recipes.) The floor of my office, as you can see from the picture, is my largest flat surface, so I’m down there when researching, and also when punching holes in new material. I can also work from both binders while writing...which proves that, at certain points, the floor is more useful than the computer screen.
If you've ever been to a bookshop in the UK (or to one of the few bookstores in the States that imports British books), you've probably noticed that the books on the shelves look stunning compared to their Yankee counterparts. At the bookstore where I worked in LA, I encountered authors who hated their American book covers but adored the British ones. Why the discrepancy? I don't know; I suspect it has to do with the fact that books are marketed by entertainment companies as "entertainment products" here in the US, while elsewhere, books are treated simply as books. To illuminate the differences in book design, I've placed some American books (on the left) side by side with their British versions (on the right). (click on the images to enlarge).Freakonomics by Steven LevittThe American cover looks like an ad for insurance, while the British version is more vivid and features nifty pixel art.Until I Find You by John IrvingThe American version is flat and looks like a promotion for the "John Irving brand," while the British version is slick and sexy.Cloud Atlas by David MitchellUS version: as dull as a textbook. UK Version: so groovy, you want to dive right in.On Beauty by Zadie SmithThe US versions of Zadie Smith's books look nice, but they are quite pale compared to their British counterparts.Slow Man by J. M. CoetzeeThis time the US version gets the better of the British one with mysteriously iconic silhouette of the broken bicycle.If you are interested in book design have a look at my long ago post about superstar book designer Chip Kidd, and you'll also enjoy the book design blog Forward.
In January I posted scans of a bunch of fantastic new editions of classic books from Penguin with covers designed by famous comic book artists. I'd heard that another batch was on the way, and I finally got my hands on the images so here they are. They come out this fall:Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Cover by Yoshihiro TatsumiWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Cover by Thomas Ott The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, Cover by JasonLady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Cover by Chester Brown Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Cover by Frank MillerPhilosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade, Cover by Tomer HanukaSee the full-size pictures hereSome other notes: I first saw some of these covers posted at the Fantagraphics blog. Tomer Hanuka has a really cool post about designing his cover at his blog Tropical Toxic.