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I found a coffee-table book on my last library visit called My Ideal Bookshelf. The idea is simple: ask artists, chefs, writers, architects, designers, musicians, and other creative spirits to put together a small sample of the books that have had the greatest impact on their lives. There’s no strict limit on number of books–just keep the list short enough to let the books stand or stack together on a short shelf, perhaps half the length of your standard IKEA fixture. Each page spread features an illustration of the books and a brief explanation by the person in question of why he or she picked them. The result is lovely: a lively sort of dialogue begins to unfold, even though the people featured throughout the book may never have spoken to one another.

Some books appear on shelf after shelf; some are famous and many I’ve never heard of. One chef chose a book whose spine was ripped off entirely, with thicker lines of glue on the binding-cloth to show where the connection between book and cover used to be. The cookbook had belonged to her grandmother and was full of notes in the margins. Junot Diaz’s shelf balanced Lord of the Rings over books on torture and race relations. In many cases, it was easy to see how the books people chose had shaped their own work, but there are surprises as well.

Of course, as soon as you crack the spine you want a notepad to start a to-read list, and it’s a matter of pages before you start daydreaming your own bookshelf. A few of mine that would make the list:

  1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. The beauty of the language thrilled me at 13, and as I’ve gotten older, Bradbury has still caught me with his enthusiasm for people, his disregard for genre pigeonholing, and of course the lyricism throughout his writing.
  2. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. People tend to love or hate this one. I love it for making an obsessive, consuming love into both the redeeming quality and downfall of two barely likeable people.
  3. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perleman. I started reading the blog at 19, before it was even about cooking. Over years, I began to understand the deep vein of creativity that lies in making food. Now, cooking, and especially baking, is a hobby and a way to work out my creative kinks. I also credit Smitten with introducing me to artichokes, but that’s another story for another time.
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. Reading this book is what led to me meeting my husband, but if that wasn’t enough, I’d list it here for its irrepressible playfulness and as a reminder that flying by the seat of your pants can lead to good writing and a lot of fun.
  5. The Little Prince, by Antoine Saint-Exupery. Because it’s true, and beautiful, and makes me cry no matter how many times I’ve read it.
  6. Childcraft, because this is the collection of poems my father read to me.
  7. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Latin magical realism in general has proven to me that magic does have a place in canonical ‘literature,’ something I had hoped but had a hard time believing.
  8. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor. I wish I was her. I love the way the grotesque and the spiritual come together, and the way she saw her writing as a way of communicating her idea of God. She inspires me technically and reminds me to aspire to do more than entertain.
  9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Diaz doesn’t apologize or slow down his writing for anyone. It keeps his writing smarter, and also more intimate because of the way he assumes you know what he knows.
  10. The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, because it feels like a gift.
  11. Of Mice and Men, by Steinbeck. Steinbeck is able to write short novels that don’t feel forced into economy of language. There is still description and beauty, but the story and characters are kept so tight and clean that a slim little book can tell what others couldn’t do in 400 pages.

The beauty of an “ideal bookshelf” is that it can change over time. I’d love to hear what’s on your shelf right now, or what I should consider adding to mine.

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