The problem of bookshelves

Over at Paper Cuts, Jennifer Schuessler has joined the inter-blog conversation about bookshelf etiquette by confessing that her collection is “heavily weighted toward the unread,” stockpiled for the coming era of the Kindle-toting zombies. I already spoke my piece, by blogging about all the books I’ve been throwing out, but for those whom the topic continues to fascinate, I recommend two books that I’ve been reading by the photographer Moyra Davey, Long Life Cool White, just published by Yale University Press, and The Problem of Reading, which you have to email Davey herself to buy a copy of (see the link for instructions). Both books are filled not only with Davey’s moody photos of bookshelves in various states of disarray and transition but also with her thoughts on the place of reading in a creative life, and the difficulty, in managing the habit, of striking the right balance between purpose and serendipity, and between work and pleasure. “‘What to read?’ is a recurring dilemma in my life,” she admits in The Problem of Reading, which has, among other images, a great close-up of her mother’s annotations of Swann’s Way. Long Life Cool White focuses more specifically on the problem of reading about photography (and writing about it). At one point in that book, Davey, like Schuessler in her anticipation of zombies, considers her bookshelves as a storehouse, similar in function to her refrigerator, only more so:

A well-stocked fridge always triggers a certain atavistic, metabolic anxiety, like that of the Neanderthal after the kill, faced with the task of needing to ingest or preserve a massive abundance of food before spoilage sets in. . . . I feel a little towards my books as I do towards the fridge, that I have to manage these as well, prioritize, determine which book is likely to give me the thing I need most at a given moment. But unlike with the fridge, I like to be surrounded by an excess of books, and to not even have a clear idea of what I own, to feel as though there’s a limitless store waiting to be tapped, and that I can be surprised by what I find.