Last updated: November 12, 2011 3:00 am

Unpacking my library

Six writers and their book-collecting habits

 Gary Shteyngart

Author of: ‘Super Sad True Love Story’

Lives: Manhattan

More

On this story

IN FT Magazine

I’m big on sniffing books. The old Soviet ones really have this strong smell, reminding me, for some reason, of tomato soup in a cheap Soviet cafeteria.

The oldest book in my collection is one of the first books I read as a four- or five-year-old. A Swedish children’s book, in Russian, the title of which translates as The Adventures of Nils and the Wild Geese. The book began to fall apart from many readings and is lovingly wrapped up in layers of Soviet masking tape.

Nabokov’s Pnin is very important. A work that is so humane and at the same time hilarious. But let’s not forget my full collection of Sopranos DVDs. This is storytelling for the new century.

Some books are so good they are slightly lumped together, the Nabokovs and Roths, for example. But mostly I want to be surprised every time I look at the shelves. Who knows where anything is?

Gary Shteyngart’s top 10 books:

Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler; Collected Works of Anton Chekhov; Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee; Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov; Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth; Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc; Season one of The Sopranos; Veronica by Mary Gaitskill; We Met, Talked by Sergei Dovlatov

.......................................................................

Philip Pullman

Author of: ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy

Lives: near Oxford

I don’t believe in dissing books I used to love, and I always suspect the moral judgment of people who sneer at the taste of the reader they used to be: “I know thee not, old book.”

Palgrave’s Golden Treasury accompanied me everywhere for two or three teenage years. It was the most popular British anthology of verse and the embodiment of traditional taste, which meant all the famous poems were there. I loved them, and I still do. But The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 knocked that all into exhilarating, intoxicating, inspiring, enthralling confusion and showed me new forms of delight.

We moved to this house eight years ago, because we thought that at last we’d have room for all our books. No chance! Every time I go into town I accidentally buy two or three books. Foreign editions of my own books crowd in from all over the world like eels making for the river where they were spawned.

When we first moved here, I paid my younger son to arrange the books in the downstairs “study”. He has a librarian’s mind, and his arrangement held good until so many more books arrived that they burst the banks of the subject headings. Now it’s just memory and guesswork that guide me to this pile or that shelf. I’m often delightfully surprised by a book I’d forgotten.

Occasionally I get rid of some. It would be nice to keep one copy of the Thai edition of my fairy tales, but do I really need 10? So from time to time I go through and pick out everything I don’t want and take it to the charity shop. It’s only skimming the froth, though.

Philip Pullman’s top 10 books:

Blake by Ruthven Todd, ed; The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa; The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé; Twentieth Century Dictionary by Chambers; The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop; Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino; Middlemarch by George Eliot; The New American Poetry 1945-1960 by Donald Allen, ed; The Oxford Book of Ballads by Arthur Quiller Couch, ed; The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language by Francis Turner Palgrave, ed

.......................................................................

Claire Messud and James Wood

Authors of: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ (Messud) and ‘How Fiction Works’ (Wood)

Live: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Claire Messud: Most of my earlier books are from high school or college – I’ve got lots of worthy tomes from university ( Auerbach! Lacan! Jameson! Fish! ), though I’ve passed on more than a few, by now, to more diligent academic readers than I.

In midlife, I feel that my tendency to acquire books is rather like someone smoking two packs a day: it’s a terrible vice that I wish I could shuck. I love my books, and with all their dog-ears and under-linings they are irreplaceable, but I sometimes wish they’d just vanish. To be weighed down by things – books, furniture – seems somehow terrible to me. Some of our books are separate – poetry and literature, mostly – and some are combined – history, say, or travel books. Certainly we both know at once which books properly belong to one or the other of us, and by the same token, know which books are somehow shared. I can’t explain how we know this, but as far as I recall, we’ve never disagreed about a single volume.

James Wood: In my library, the books that mean most to me are the ones that made a decisive impact on my development, the ones I can remember reading in a certain time and place, with joy and discovery. The affection one has for these books has, in my case, nothing to do with the quality of the books as objects. Often, they are the cheapest, and most beaten-up paperbacks: the old Penguin editions of Nietzsche, for instance; Benjamin’s One-Way Street; the ugly old Penguin editions (with hideous cover art) of Bellow’s novels.

These new, fitted shelves, which make me feel quite grown-up, are the “show-shelves”. I have a separate bookcase for “unread books I want to read sometime soon”. Of course, it’s enormous and dispiriting.

I deface nearly all my books, with both annotations in ink, and lots of dog-earing. I also write to-do lists in the endpapers, or telephone numbers, or names of people I must email. These latter often prove more interesting than any of my literary comments: years later, I stare at them, trying to work out who these people were.

Claire Messud’s top 10 books:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 of Elizabeth Bishop; Essays and Aphorisms of Arthur Schopenhauer; Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard; Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James; The Letters, 1830-1857 of Gustave Flaubert; Selected Stories by Alice Munro; Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust; Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo

James Wood’s top 10 books:

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald; Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather; A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul; Loving by Henry Green; The Moon and the Bonfire by Cesare Pavese; The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth; Seize the Day by Saul Bellow; Stories by Anton Chekhov; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

.......................................................................

Junot Díaz

Author of: ‘The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’

Lives: Cambridge, Massachusetts

I started acquiring books as soon as I started earning my own money. I was 12, I guess. Had a couple of paper routes. I cannot exaggerate how poor my family was in my childhood, and there were days when it was a toss-up between food and books.

Despite all the times I have moved, I never shed books except once, after I left New Jersey more or less for good. I still mourn the books I chucked. And over the years, I have slowly pulled other copies of these back into my life. But there are some I’ve never recovered.

Naturally, I buy more than I can read, so there is always at least a 100-book margin between what I own and what I’ve read. What’s cool is that I’ve caught up a couple of times. But then I’ll buy too much and the race starts again.

I only throw away books that are too damaged to read, and I try to prolong their lives with tape. I have some Frankensteins around here you just wouldn’t imagine.

Junot Díaz’s top 10 books:

Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor by Tom Athanasiou; Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic by Edward Rivera; From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1990, vol. 5, Nadir and Resurgence, 1964-1979 by Thomas G. Karis and Gail M. Gerhart; The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture by Marguerite Feitlowitz; The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; Love and Rockets, no. 12, Poison River by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez; The Motion of Light and Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village by Samuel R. Delany; Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture by Eric Greene; The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

.......................................................................

Edmund White

Author of: ‘A Boy’s Own Story’

Lives: Manhattan

I don’t have that many books and they’re not arranged in any particular order. I think for a while I had the Genet and Proust books together, and they attracted other unrelated titles in French. My own books, which I keep in order to give away to friends, are in one section, more or less.

Michael, my partner, has a very intimidating batch of books in his bathroom, but in mine there are just circulating books or magazines. The books beside the bed, les livres de chevet, are supposed to be important to the person who sleeps there, but mine aren’t. When I was younger I loved having books sitting around in cartons, but now, partly because I’m so aware of my age (71), I see books as a problem I might end up imposing on my heirs.

I have no taboos about getting rid of books. I try to be a good citizen and give them to Housing Works, but if I truly despise a book, I’ll put it in the garbage.

Edmund White’s top 10 books:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald; The Collected Stories of Anton Chekhov; The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Nothing by Henry Green; Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet; Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust; A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood; The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

This is an edited extract from ‘Unpacking My Library: Writers and their Books’ edited by Leah Price (Yale University Press, £16), published on November 17

Photography by Gabrielle Reed and Christian Lazen-Bernardt; and Michael K Mills

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts