Thursday, November 4

Phillip Lopate's world of books

In his office and library, surrounded by thousands of books organized mostly geographically by author, the writer and teacher Phillip Lopate sits at his desk at the center of a literary universe

Phillip is the author of 15 books and seven anthologies, by our rough count, and a contributor to dozens more. These books are filed in a massive bookcase containing mostly English literature, in the nearby galaxy known as the hall. This room, on the third floor of a brownstone where he lives with his wife and daughter, is filled with Europeans, Asians, his sub-genre specialties like New York City, film, and poetry, and dead Americans. "Updike is upstairs now," he says. "He used to be downstairs with the living."

In the below photo, the shelves on the left from near to far are fanatically ordered: Russians, Germans, French, Italians. The Spanish and Portuguese are along the bottom. Around the fireplace are journals in which he's published. (They lived in the fireplace until a recent visit from the sweeper.) On the right side of the photo, film books take up half the case and he needs more room... Japanese and Chinese authors are on the other side. Poetry is filed in the last four shelves.

Below, a reading nook near the Japanese and Chinese, and the film books, and the poetry. The side table.
I'm skipping over a number of sub-genres organized to keep at hand. The tower of DVDs below, for example, are references for the essay film course he's teaching at Columbia.
As I said in a recent post, Phillip was my instructor last semester at Bennington. During the winter writers' residency, he read his very entertaining essay, "The Life of the Mind," about rearranging his bookshelves, "a soothing seasonal ritual" that happens in the fall. What a perfect subject for Homebodies, I thought! I just had to invite myself over. He writes:

"I started to hunt for a book to read, I noticed my Japanese literature section was overflowing, with excess paperbacks stacked horizontally above the tops of upright hard-covers, and others in danger of slipping behind the front ranks and disappearing from sight for years. The Italian section, I noticed had a little extra room. I could consolidate the two--but what connection did Japanese and Italian literature have, other than both countries having been Axis powers that fought against us in World War II? No, it would make more sense to move the Portuguese writers in with the Brazilians, and pair the Japanese shelves with the Chinese... 
     Before I knew it, I was cradling armfuls of books like a wobbly accordion. I tried to keep them in the same order, but whenever a book or two fell from my hands the whole alphabetical system was endangered, and I would end up having to file every one separately, which was what I secretly wanted to do..." 

He continues (this is great fun, hacking away at my instructor's essay; the tables have turned):

"In a throwback to my childhood play with toy soldiers, I now control the movements of nations by dictatorially dispersing their literatures. Having rearranged the globe, hitched Spain to Greece and returned India to England, I am ready to tackle subtler diasporas. My books are distributed not only by nationality but by subject matter and genre, including categories such as movies, poetry, architecture, social science. Delicate decisions must be made."

On a related dictatorial note, on his office door, below a Valentine from his daughter featuring the name of one of his books, hangs a gift from his poet friend Ron Padgett, who took the liberty of sketching Phillip Stalin, Phillip Hitler, Phillip Castro...
More pics in the next post...

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