Monday, May 16, 2011

Writer Jorge Luis Borges once opined that "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." I could not agree more, which won't surprise anyone who knows me personally or through my Collected Traveler books. So when I saw a copy of a book entitled Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books (edited by Jo Steffens, with an essay by Walter Benjamin / Yale University Press in association with Urban Center Books, New York, 2009) I eagerly picked it up...and happily bought it. The inspiration for this wonderful idea came from a talk on book collecting at Cooper Union in New York in 2006, which led in turn to the original version of the essay "Unpacking My Library" from Walter Benjamin's book Illuminations, which then led to the notion of photographing and exhibiting architects' libraries.
I love this idea. I don't know about you, but I always want to know what books are in someone else's library, especially the library of a fellow travel enthusiast, an artist, a novelist, a journalist, or a writer of any kind. In the same way, I want to know what books an art historian has in his or her library, or a photographer or a musician (and even better, for a musician, is what albums he or she listens to). Editor Steffens notes in the Preface that "Unpacking My Library has appeal beyond the world of architecture, for it affirms the importance of books in our lives. As you browse the books shown in these pages, a familiar title will spark recognition; an idea or converstion may be recalled. Not unlike Proust's famous madeleine, books are laden with powerful associations, and through them we share common histories and develop personal relationships."

We are privy to the libraries of a dozen of the world's leading architects in this book: Stan Allen, Henry N. Cobb, Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Steven Holl, Toshiko Mori, Michael Sorkin, Bernard Tschumi, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. The sizes of these libraries range from 750 to 6,000 copies! Not only do we get to see their books spine out on their shelves, but each architect shares their lists of their top ten influential titles -- from architectural history to theory to fiction and nonfiction -- and it is these lists that I find fascinating. For example, I don't think it would have been easy to predict that Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon appears on three architects' lists, or that titles like The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Light in August by William Faulkner, and Moby Dick appear on others (for the record, I never even attempted to reach Gravity's Rainbow, having struggled to get through V, though I loved The Crying of Lot 49). On the other hand, I wasn't surprised (but was still happy) to see Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson on the list of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien ("the ultimate dream of architecture -- you can draw your world the way you want it to be"), The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs on the list of Michael Sorkin, and The Four Books of Architecture on the lists of Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman, who notes "without The Four Books on Architecture of Palladio no one would have cared about Palladio. A book lasts longer than a building; books are more important in the world than buildings." Additionally, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by Robert Venturi appeared on three short lists, again unsurprisingly.

All of this has given me an idea: I'm going to unpack a lot of other people's libraries! I'll compile a regular feature both on my blog and within the pages of my books about the books that people I meet (or already know) collect. As often as I can I'll include photos. First up will be books about Tuscany and Umbria and any of the cities, towns, and villages of these regions. This should be interesting - stay tuned!

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