My Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force
Every bibliophile knows the surreptitious joy of peeking at other people’s well-curated bookshelves. (Curation is important: haphazard piles of dusty books make me sad, unless I’m a potential buyer.) The books that are so important to you they stay with you move after move, culling after culling… those are the ones you can count the rings on your soul with. This is exactly what artist Jane Mount was tapping into when she started the Ideal Bookshelf Project in 2007, painting people’s idealized bookshelves. The spectacularly named Thessaly La Force joined forces with her and added interviews to Mount’s pieces, resulting in My Ideal Bookshelf.
My Ideal Bookshelf sees La Force and Mount interview one hundred creative types (occupations range from “writer” to “chef” to “app developer”) to not only ask what their ideal bookshelf consists of, but why. The phrase “my ideal bookshelf” means different things to different people—is it books that changed your life? Books that you reread all the time? Your reference material for work? By letting the interviewees decide what it means to them, My Ideal Bookshelf gives us a very unique and personal look into these people’s lives and creative processes.
Towards the middle of reading this book, I started playing a game. I would turn the page (naturally, interview and art compose a two-page spread), cover the name of the interviewee with my hand, and try to identify them based solely off of their books. I lost a lot, because the contributors are a diverse bunch; I’d only encountered a few of them beforehand. But when I won? That felt good. Staring at Michael Chabon’s and Lev Grossman’s ideal bookshelves and knowing, immediately, that these were not only tastes I’d encountered, but tastes similar to my own… well, it’s like coming across a beloved copy of one of your favorite books on the bookshelf of someone you already liked. It’s downright endearing.
As a voyeuristic exercise, My Ideal Bookshelf is a delight designed to bloat your reading list: I added twelve when I organized my notes. Because the contributors are so varied, I was exposed to cookbooks, design books, and other, slightly more technical fare that I would have never encountered otherwise. It’s always good to see how other people do things, especially if their minds tackle subjects differently, so I was intrigued by how practitioners of other disciplines imagine the concept of “the ideal bookshelf”. Chefs, in particular, made for amazing entries. Of course, there’s plenty of more traditional bibliophiles’ shelves to gawk at here: I, naturally, immediately perked up at the profiles of two editors. But the writers’ profiles ended up providing an interesting pattern. The more seriously “literary” authors tended to echo each other with selection and run together in my mind, while more diverse authors have what feels to me to be more thoughtful and honest bookshelves, like the previously mentioned Chabon, Mira Nair, and even Stephenie Meyer. Her bookshelf, while perhaps not the most sophisticated, nonetheless feels like something she actually goes back to again and again. Save for the book of Mormon and the Orson Scott Card, I could probably find that shelf somewhere in my dorm building right now.
Given the fact that each contributor was allowed to define the concept for themselves, I really wish the interviews were a little more… Okay, I wish the interviews were just about the books and what they mean to each contributor. A lot of the more seriously “literary” authors end up giving out writing advice instead of discussing their selections, which got maddening after a while. A few pieces include a specific edition of a book whose spine has been so damaged you can’t identify the text; these are clearly books with history. So when the contributor doesn’t even mention it, I was, as a reader and book collector, frustrated. (All the books are identified at the end of My Ideal Bookshelf, as well as on the project’s website.) But I think I would have only been satisfied with a comprehensive bulleted list, which wouldn’t have fit in the short spaces allotted for the interview, so I don’t think it’s entirely the book’s fault. Still: a little bit more focus would have been deeply appreciated.
A lot of the reason why I picked up My Ideal Bookshelf was Mount’s art. It seems like such a simple concept, painting bookshelves, but Mount’s bright, flat colors and endearingly hand-lettered versions of different fonts makes these pieces as loved as the books it’s depicting. Several books crop up again and again in the entries, but seeing Mount render the different editions is a delight. And I will admit to gasping with joyous familiarity when I recognized Junot Díaz’s copies of The Lord of the Rings by the color of the spine. But I think what makes some of these pieces so personal is how the books are arranged. Being half a librarian, I organize everything in alphabetical order and the Dewey Decimal System, but others don’t, and each system says something about the contributor. James Franco’s shelf, for instance, is stacked in a way that tells you this is a man trying to cram everything onto a single shelf, which speaks to his broad interest in many art forms. Some books are shelved upside down; some are displayed with their cover out; some are stacked horizontally. Having Mount’s paintings capture not only the books that speak to you, but how you decide to organize or display them really makes these pieces amazing snapshots of where you are at a certain point in your life. Since I had a library copy, I did not fill out the blank template provided in the back of the book, but I think I smell an annual photograph project…
Incidentally, you can purchase prints of several of these pieces (or even commission your own!) in the project’s online shop. I want that Tolkien print so, so bad.
Bottom line: As a voyeuristic exercise, My Ideal Bookshelf is a delight designed to bloat your reading list. Jane Mount’s paintings of people’s bookshelves are warm, endearing, and well-loved; I just wish the interviews were a little more book-focused. A fine gift for your bibliophile, be they your inner bibliophile or someone else.
I rented this book from the public library.