DISCLAIMER: I was given a free copy of this book for review purposes.
My Ideal Bookshelf is an interesting thought experiment. A great deal of the pleasure in reading it comes from spotting a familiar title on one of these imaginary bookshelves, then scanning your own real world library and seeing a physical copy of it nestled between bookends. It's also great fun trying to create your own list of essentials. What books changed you as a person, formed you into the embittered attorney or giddy anesthesiologist or cheeky carpenter you are today? Which novels or essays do you carry around inside your skull?
The range of people who answered these questions is interesting, but narrow. Most are familiar names from the worlds of writing, film, and art. The book goes through them alphabetically and assumes you know who each person is, although you will find single paragraph micro-biographies at the very back of the book if you find yourself asking, "Who?" There's no explanation as to why this particular set of folks was chosen, which suggests convenience and cooperation as the motivating factors, but you should be able to find at least two or three who grab your attention, no matter what your interests.
The real strength of this book is the illustrations. Each book spine is beautifully detailed and painstakingly accurate. You will be surprised by how a font or particular shade of orange will instantly call up a memory of the novel before you even look at the title. Book covers are designed to seize hold of your eyes as you scan a crowded shelf, and the drawings here display the many different ways publishers have tried to make their products stand out. Simplicity, explosions of color, delicate linework, or blocky leaden letters. Mount's art style captures all of these techniques, while adding her own distinct fingerprint to them. Something about the slightly wobbly outlines of the novels lends them a childlike charm, no matter how adult the words inside the covers.
The written portion of the book is less successful. Each participant discusses their selections, but they're given very little space to do so. Almost every person picked ten or more books to line their imaginary bookshelves but were only given four to six brief paragraphs to explain their choices. This means they either ignore most of their selections and talk about only one title or spit out one sentence summaries that don't add all that much. I understand the desire to match a page of text with a page of illustration, but if you're only going to allow a person twenty seconds to describe a lifetime of passion for reading, what comes out is inevitably going to be shallow and rather pointless.
There are two potential ways to fix this. First, let your sources talk. If you assume that readers care enough to ask what various authors, artists, and chefs love to read, then those same readers are probably patient enough to find out why. Give your participants enough time and enough pages to say something meaningful about their choices, to tell an anecdote, to gush over how dreamy Hemmingway is. Anything, really, as long as it actually adds a dimension to the discussion.
Alternatively, just publish the illustrations. Leave the book as a pure, abstract thought experiment with noteworthy figures and celebrities picking out whatever books they like and readers extrapolating the meaning behind each choice.
As it is now, the little pseudo-interview blurbs just detract from the beautiful illustrations done by Mount. They serve only to frustrate those who are looking for real insight into the people creating these imaginary bookshelves or to distract those who just want to admire artfully recreated book spines.
In short, the concept behind My Ideal Bookshelf is clever and will appeal to any bibliophile. The illustrations are slightly whimsical and lovingly rendered. Unfortunately the book is let down by its structure with the text portions squeezed into tiny spaces and ultimately into irrelevance.