The Meaning of a Bookshelf: An Interview with Lydia Pyne

We spoke with writer and historian Lydia Pyne about her new book, Bookshelf, an installment of Object Lessons, an essay and book series about the hidden lives of ordinary things, a project of The Atlantic and Bloomsbury Publishing. She’ll speak and sign the book in our store 2/18. 

Zeno Bookshelf Shellfie

Why a book about bookshelves? What inspired your research?

Bookshelf is part of the Object Lessons series that focuses on the “hidden lives of everyday objects” — everything from hoods to socks to remote controls to shipping containers. I realized that anybody who would read a book in the series would have to use a bookshelf — physical or digital — to do so! You take a book off a shelf in a bookstore to look at it, you pursue something at the library, you add a new book to your own shelf, etc. I was intrigued by an object that the entire series shared. I also became curious about how book technology (e.g. the invention of the printing press and, of course, the Kindle) changed how books were put on shelves and how bookshelves were built. I wanted to write about something that most book- and reading-enthusiasts, myself included, use without thinking too much about. Bookshelves are objects with very, very interesting histories.

How did you go about conducting your research? Where did you begin?

It felt very apropos for the subject — I started at the library! (There are shelves and shelves of histories about book technology and history of “the book” as its own object.) I spent time at UT’s Harry Ransom Center with the Center’s chained books that are curated its Rare Books & Manuscripts collection. I also interviewed historians, archivists, librarians, and carpenters; people that think about bookshelves everyday, consciously or unconsciously. I think my favorite part of Bookshelf‘s research was a behind-the-scenes tour of the Library of Congress — the miles and miles of shelves underground in DC were mind-boggling.

What’s the wildest / most curious / most surprising thing you learned?

I knew that IKEA produced a lot of bookshelves, but I was shocked to learn that between 1979-2009, IKEA produced 43,496 miles of BILLY bookshelves. (The BILLY bookshelves would wrap almost twice around the earth’s equator.) That’s a lot of shelf space.

Do you have a personal bookshelf system? How do you organize your reading life?

I do have a lot of bookshelves with lots of books on them, but I’m not sure that there is a particular, formal order to the books on the shelves. But the bookshelves next to my office desk are reserved for current writing projects, so shelves cycle through books with each new project.

How has digital reading affected the way people interact with their bookshelves? Is a virtual shelf generally the same as a physical shelf or a different species all together?

Digital shelves are really interesting. I think that they mirror the function of a physical shelf in its most basic form — it’s where you put your books. And some digital shelves even look like “real” shelves, with a wood grain and books with title organized in a way that’s easily recognizable to readers. Some book critics have speculated that the “privacy” of the digital shelf is what made a series like Fifty Shades of Grey so popular — no one could see and judge what a reader kept on the bookshelf.

But I think more than anything else, digital bookshelves are very much like medieval bookshelves, where books were chained to the shelf to keep them in place. Since digital books are tethered to specific devices, the Kindle (and other digital shelves) behave more like medieval and early modern shelves than we might think.

What are your five favorite books on your bookshelf right now?

I’m currently reading Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero with Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland on deck. Other recently read favorites would include Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy, The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose, and Havel: A Life by Michael Zantovsky.

Share you own bookshelf with us the #shareyourshelf. Tag us and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of Bookshelf! Hope to see you when Lydia speaks and signs in our store 2/18.

Lydia Pyne author photoLYDIA PYNE (PhD) is a freelance writer, editor, and historian, and a Research Fellow in the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas of Austin, USA. She is a contributing editor for The Appendix and a reviewer and essayist for NewPages and New York Journal of Books. She is the author, with Stephen J. Pyne, of The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene (Penguin, 2013).

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