If eyes are a window to a man’s soul, then surely his bookshelf is a portal to his heart. Artist Jane Mount and writer and editor Thessaly La Force decided to examine the hearts of over 100 creative minds in their novel Ideal Bookshelf, asking the likes of Thurston Moore, Chuck Klosterman, Judd Apatow and Patti Smith what their perfect library would look like.
We spoke to Thessaly about guilty pleasures, collecting books you’ll never read and whether James Franco is a liar.
Sinead Stubbins: How did you come up with the idea for Ideal Bookshelf?
Thessaly La Force: Jane had been painting bookshelves for a few years but the entire enterprise began when Jane gave up her studio space in New York and was painting in her apartment. Painting book spines seemed like a fun project, and she could practice drawing typefaces, and the response was immediate. The paintings were ‘ideal’ because people were putting so much thought into the books that they choose--it was clear that every shelf had a story.
SS: Why do you think a book collection is so personal?
TLF: They're not books after you start reading! They're entire worlds, people, families, love stories... I mean, the book you love is not the physical entity anymore. It's a place that existed for you. And often that place is an escape. Or it's a place that you recognize, because you're there too. That's storytelling.
SS: I often wish I could love books like War and Peace but just can’t do it—do you think people should try books that they’re supposed to like? Or is it not that simple?
TLF: Supposed to like because they're a classic? Because someone you believe to be smarter than you has read it? I think you're free to like any book you want. I mean, I see what you're getting at--there are books that are commitments. It's like getting married. Proust will be in your life for a very long time. So will Tolstoy. But the truth is, there is no way you'll read everything. My electrician the other day put it well: "Too many books, not enough time."
The obligation to read classics, and to like them, I think, comes from high school English. And that's partially because at that age we rely on someone to help us broaden our minds. If it had been up for me, I would have never cracked open Shakespeare at 13. I would also still be eating bland pasta every day. Formal education is, in my opinion, meant to exist so that you can eventually rebel or embrace certain elements of it. But as you get older, it should be instinctual to define your own taste. Also, some books will enter your life naturally. I remember telling a friend how I couldn't get into Moby Dick, no matter how many times I tried. And she told me that there are some books you're just not ready for and that I shouldn't worry or stress about it. This isn't, by the way, an argument for being a lazy reader. One should always try to push themselves in some capacity. But one shouldn't feel an obligation to finish a book or like it.
SS: What’s your guilty pleasure read?
TLF: I don't know if I believe in guilty pleasures. It's like saying there is high-brow culture and low-brow culture, when it's all culture, right? But I suppose if I'm ever reading and feeling guilty about it, it's when I am rereading a favorite short story of mine, and I realize that maybe I ought to be reading something new, and broadening my horizons, but I don't want to stop, because it's just that good, and I want to experience it again, and again, and again. It's like when The Princess Bride or Groundhog Day is on TV. I will watch those movies until the end, no matter how many times I've seen it.
SS: During the process, were there any contributors who made you think ‘Hmm, you’re lying, you wouldn’t like that!’? James Franco’s reads like a college professor’s…
TLF: Not at all! Some shelves are purposefully modest, sure. And some are incredibly ambitious. But why is that a lie? Or bad? I was surprised by how many people choose books they hadn't read. Or they had read when they were 21. I thought that was cool. Zach Kanin was like, “I read this when I was in college and I haven't read it since, so I'm trusting the taste of my younger self”. Or Thurston Moore, who was like, “I have some of these books because I like them, and I like having them near me, but I haven't read them ... yet”. We collect books not because we necessary read them right away, but because we like the idea of having them close.
SS: Who surprised you the most?
TLF: I have to say, when you get to over 100 contributors, you start to have a very open-minded approach. Nothing surprised me by the end of the project. It was more like, “Cool, cool, rock on”.
SS: What would you select? If you could only pick 5 for your Ideal Bookshelf?
TLF: It changes constantly. Like, right now I'm really interested in finding books that fit a particular aesthetic. Right now, what's close to me is John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, Guy Bourdin's Polaroids, Thank You and Other Poems by Kenneth Koch, and Roberto Bolano's short stories. But it'll change. And that's what I liked about our project. It's a snapshot of you from a particular intellectual period of your life. It's not a definitive list. You're allowed to keep evolving as a reader— in fact, you have to.
SS: In your opinion, what is an essential book?
TLF: You don't want to put it down. Your mind wanders, but not in that way where you think about doing something else other than reading. And afterwards, you imagine what some of the characters are doing. Maybe you talk to them. Or you try to imitate the writing. Or you tell five of your friends to read it. It's not something you consume and forget, but rather something that changed you, even if it's just the tiniest bit.
SS: What do you think about ‘fake collections’ – books which are displayed but never read?
TLF: I guess I feel sad for someone who buys books and never reads them, that seems like their loss, both financially and intellectually, but at this point, if someone is buying books, why complain? The thing about books too, is that they are built to sit around for a long time. So who knows— maybe one day, the owner will feel compelled to open one of them!
SS: Why do you think the print book is still enduring in a world of e-readers? What makes that ink on paper so exciting still?
TLF: Well, I think some people find e-reading a challenge. The screen, the modern, tech-y look of everything. But I think books are objects, too, that's a very essential component of their appeal. Sentiment can be hard to shake.
SS: What advice would you give someone starting their ideal bookshelf?
TLF: Just read. Read voraciously. Push yourself to read. That's the best place to begin.
Words and Interview by Sinead Stubbins.