Shelving insecurities

Illustration: Jane Mount.
Illustration: Jane Mount.

PICO Iyer calls The Quiet American by Graham Greene ''my uncertain Bible''. He first read it 30 years ago and he returns to it every few months. It sits on his ideal bookshelf, jostling spines with Moby-Dick, Thoreau's On Walden Pond, Shakespeare, the letters of John Keats, Derek Walcott's poems, Emerson's essays, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Jan Morris' Among the Cities, and a book about Zen.

''Each is like a friend who arises from a parallel universe in my past,'' Iyer says of these books.

What books would you have on your ideal bookshelf? Tricky question, and your answers might change from day to day, let alone year to year or decade to decade. But some 100 creative people have had a go at constructing their own personal ideal.

Editor Thessaly La Force and artist Jane Mount have put the results together into a book, My Ideal Bookshelf. Opposite each page of text, Mount has painted a row of about 14 books, spine outwards, for each person's choice. It's a beguiling, charming, sometimes confessional and often surprising window into some creative people's tastes and inspirations.

Many of these selectors are writers, and no prizes for guessing the books that keep cropping up: Middlemarch, Lolita, and various books by Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Borges, Proust, Woolf, Sartre, Edith Wharton, Flannery O'Connor, Haruki Murakami and Chekhov (Francine Prose's selections are all Chekhov). If we want to get patriotic, it's good to see J.M. Coetzee is a perpetual favourite; there are also fans of Shirley Hazzard and Shaun Tan.

But because the book also includes the choices of chefs, fashion designers, filmmakers, comedians and dancers, the shelves hold much more than just classics and literary favourites. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton has a row of books chosen because they ''give the reader permission to break the rules''. One is the Bible, ''because every sentence in it starts with the word 'and', which every teacher tells you not to do''.

Film director Judd Apatow mixes authors such as Saul Bellow and Raymond Carver with the Marx Brothers and Monty Python. ''Everyone should read this bookshelf,'' he writes. ''You will reap untold benefits: money, fame, women, and a level of insecurity that cannot be measured by modern technology.''

Simon Doonan picks The Things I Love by Liberace, a heroic figure for him: ''Go for it. Life is short. Why shouldn't you have rhinestones glued all over your Rolls-Royce?''

Andrew Sean Greer laments that everyone in the world is a better reader than he is, though he's been reading Lolita and Proust every day for a decade. He surveys his list and erupts: ''God, it looks gay!''

Books read in childhood or adolescence are often on the shelf. I wouldn't have thought of Junot Diaz as a fan of Tolkien or Watership Down, but these were books that showed him a writer could create an extraordinary secondary world, and through that he could enchant the primary world. Immigration got Diaz reading as a child: no one could criticise his English.

It gets pretty weird with the artists. Leanne Shapton likes All the Clothes of a Woman by Hans-Peter Feldmann, which is all grainy black-and-white photos of a woman's ''normal, lumpy, faded clothes''. Tauba Auerbach has a shelf of books you can't read. Ben Schott has a fat volume of Othello which is very light when you pick it up, because it's in Braille.

At the end is a page of 10 blank book spines where you can fill in your own favourites and submit them online to A great way to celebrate the book.


This story Shelving insecurities first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.