WHITEBOARD DISPATCH #2
I recently interviewed Thessaly La Force, the co-author of My Ideal Bookshelf, for Whiteboard Journal.
Aside from being my first interview with a published author (who also worked for The New Yorker and The Paris Review!), it gives some insights about this book, which showcases the “ideal bookshelves” of various interesting personalities, from the A Visit From The Goon Squad author Jennifer Egan to Momofuku chef David Chang.
Read it all here.
Because Whiteboard Journal, the website that published this interview, underwent a revamp a while back, this piece is inaccessible—hopefully temporarily. Hence, in the meanwhile, I put the whole interview below.
Q&A: Thessaly La Force (Co-Author of My Ideal Bookshelf)
As we read—and amass—more and more books every day, the bookshelf has become a literary altar of sorts, where every single tome we put there is treasured and seems to tell a story about our lives.
This appears to be the idea that writer and editor Thessaly La Force tries to bring into life through her collaboration with the painter Jane Mount—My Ideal Bookshelf. Through interviews with around 100 people from various walks of life—writers, artists, fashion designers, musicians, chefs—La Force has created a charming and revealing compendium about what and how books affects each of their lives, accompanied with Mount’s ravishing illustrations showcasing their respective versions of an “ideal bookshelf.”
After a stint at The New Yorker and becoming the web editor of The Paris Review, La Force is currently studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
We recently exchanged e-mails to discuss this new book, why Jennifer Egan’s and Zadie Smith’s novels become part of her own ideal bookshelf, and whether physical books might face their demise in the future.
What inspired you to create My Ideal Bookshelf? And how did you end up collaborating with Jane Mount?
Jane has been painting bookshelves for some time, and a few years back she approached me about making a book. I found it the most charming idea. And I got it instantly. So we got together over cocktails in the East Village [in New York] and just talked it out. And then we came up with a vision—we wanted a book that would be fun, playful, and all about discovery. And we wanted it to be full of people who would be on our ideal bookshelves.
There is a wide range of figures that you interviewed for this book—from writer Michael Chabon to Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the designers behind Rodarte. How did you decide which person to interview?
It started with people we knew. Or people we knew through friends. We were feeling out the idea. And then we got a little bit more ambitious and basically started cold-calling folks and pitching them. Chabon and the Mulleavy sisters were definitely people we had no clue whether or not they’d go for it, but they did.
I honestly think it speaks to the charm of Jane’s paintings. It’s not that unique—the concept. But there’s something about the way she makes them look so fun and inviting and well, loved. I honestly believe that’s how everyone who participated feels about books. I think they said yes to us because they are true readers. And I will say, of the hundreds of interviews I conducted, unlike other interviews, where someone only gives you twenty minutes or five minutes—no one ever wants to stop talking about a book they love. I felt so incredibly lucky to have the chance to talk to all these people about books.
From all these amazing personalities, whose bookshelf is particularly memorable for you?
As someone working on a novel and a short story collection, I think Michael Chabon’s is the kind of bookshelf that looks like the most incredible course you could ever take on fiction writing. George Saunders’ and Jennifer Egan’s are similar. Those shelves, I think, if you really read them, would be such an education for any young writer. I have purchased every book on all three of those shelves that I don’t already own. On an aesthetic level, I think [the artist] Tauba Auerbach’s is incredibly beautiful and playful and seductive—she really thinks about books in a way that most of us don’t. Not just as objects but as portals into a different way of seeing, of touching, of thinking.
Because of the e-book prevalence now, slowly some people stop buying print books. Will you agree if I say that My Ideal Bookshelf is a response to this phenomenon? That it has an implicit message for the readers to start appreciating print books again?
You know, you’re not the first person to bring this up. And the funny thing is, both Jane and I are huge fans of technology. Jane has started several companies on the Web, and I was part of The New Yorker’s web site and then the web editor at The Paris Review. So we love technology! We love the Internet! And I do ultimately think it’s more about getting people to read, no matter what the device.
But yeah, you have a point. Jane thinks that a lot of people react to her paintings the way they do because books are seen as more precious. And I do think we’re in some kind of position to fetishize books. There is so much about them physically that will get left behind once you replace them with a screen. But at the same time, our message was ultimately about reading. And the magical journey reading takes you on. So honestly, while I’d be devastated to see physical books disappear (and I don’t really think they will), I would be okay if I knew people were still reading.
An old adage says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s somewhat true, but one of the most attractive parts of My Ideal Bookshelf is Jane Mount’s exuberant paintings of those books’ design—in this case, their colorful spines. Do you think a book’s external look matters?
Yeah, you know, I do. I think it’s not why books last. We don’t continue to read Middlemarch [by George Eliot] because of the cover. I won’t deny that books are beautiful; I just don’t think they are in a superfluous, excessive way. I get why you have bookshelves, coffee tables, bathroom nooks, bedside tables, all that stuff—all of it filled or covered with books you will only read once or books you one day hope to read. We like to surround ourselves with the things that we love. I just think that what we love about them and why we find them beautiful has more to do with the ideas inside them than anything else.
Lastly, I’ve seen the video that depicts your own ideal bookshelf, which showcases, among others, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, that happens to be my favorite as well. What does it say about yourself?
Oh boy, I am not sure. I do think that anyone’s “ideal bookshelf” is a bit like a diary. Or a snapshot. It’s you in a particular moment in time. But that will change. I’m sure in a couple of years, my shelf will be radically different. But so, Jennifer Egan was a writer I felt like I had discovered, even though that’s so far from the truth, but I guess when I did find her, she made me see how I could be a writer, too. So I put her on there for that reason. I’m a big fan of how books can show the potential for our dreams.
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is another example. I honestly last read that book at least four years ago, but I just remember it as a startling example of ambition, talent, and intellect. All done by the time she was 24. It made me see that I could maybe try for that too. It wasn’t so hopeless. I didn’t need to be a bearded Russian man sitting in his dacha to write good literature. Of course, we all have to deal with the sad fact that none of us are ever going to be as precocious and talented as Zadie Smith, but in my mind, she is still and will forever be that person I tried my best, in my own weird ways, to emulate. And that’s important.
My Ideal Bookshelf (Little, Brown and Company) is already out now. To find out more about this book—and commission Jane Mount to paint your own ideal bookshelf—check out its web site at http://www.idealbookshelf.com.