The Family of Books

I have written a piece for Granta on bookshelves.

When I moved into the house I bought a few years ago across the road from Vassar College library, the first thing I unpacked was my own little library. On one small shelf I put books by John Berger, putting in the center an anthology of his writings, so that the photograph of a young Berger looked out on the room. Berger, at once a writer and an artist and a critic, was important to me: I had discovered him as an undergraduate in Delhi. No one else could be as political and sensual as he was in his writing. His books have been my companions for much of my adult life; A Seventh Man, his imaginative work on migrants in Europe, inspired my very first book, Passport Photos. His language hovered between poetry and criticism; he was at once incisive and lyrical; a precursor to many contemporary writers who mix genres. On that same shelf with Berger’s books I put books by writers I knew personally and admired – Michael Ondaatje, Geoff Dyer and Teju Cole – but also Joan Didion. I had never met Didion or Berger, so neither could be aware of this, but I had turned them into my mentors. ‘The contents of someone’s bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait,’ the critic Anatole Broyard wrote. I was trying to create a family album, accurate for who I was as a writer at that time in my life.