Choire Sicha’s Critics

Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs Choire Sicha, founding editor of The Awl, former managing editor of Gawker, and author of the forthcoming book, Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c.2009 A.D.) in a Large City. His bookshelves are in his office,which is in his home, which is in Brooklyn. Sicha shares the space with his husband and their two cats. Sicha said that he trained them, the cats, mostly using a book called Train Your Cat in 10 Minutes a Day, which was on a pile of other books just outside his office door, presumably destined for some other place.

So my bookshelves aren’t that interesting. Do you like how it’s a mess in here? I got married a couple years ago, and we had to combine books. It was actually good, because we needed a good cleaning, and we moved three times in two years, or something like that. Or four times? So I got rid of half my books, which is great. But there is that thing where you go through, and you’re like, which ones can I bear to part with?

Which, at this point, the answer is all of them. Don’t you think? If you need a book, you can get it in an instant. Physical books... it’s sort of a waste. Isn’t that a terrible thing to say? And yet, clearly, we have plenty of them. We have a room full.

All the big ones are my husband’s. I hate art books. And then all the weird ones are mine. It’s almost half and half, all told. We had almost no overlap, which is fascinating. You should really look carefully at books when you’re getting married, see if you’re getting good books in the bargain. We just had very different reading experiences. I mean, I’ve never read history. Because I don’t know anything about anything. And he read the classics. He’s smart, intellectual. I’m not, but I read the books of Kurt Vonnegut. So I’m better off.

And then Jayne Anne Phillips, God bless. She was the shit. She was like the bad girl we all wanted to be. I think she’s still working. She’s only 52. I feel old. Super good. This is the short stories. What year is this? This was sort of like, the era when—1970, is that true? That’s weird. Time doesn’t make any sense. But she was like the shit for short fiction. I suppose she still is.

You know who’s really good? Beth Nugent, too. She was like the next Jayne Anne Phillips, totally the shit too. Everyone was like, oh, she’s who I wanna be. She still is. I don’t mean that in the like—you know what I mean. 1988. Wow, that’s crazy. Those are all really good books that I’m not sure people still read.

Oh here’s Adler’s Pitch Dark. It’s super good, right?! She’s the coolest. She’s so cool. Did you read the Canaries in the Coalmine collection? You have to! That’s like the most aggressive book, after the New Yorker book. She just tears a bunch of people new assholes. It’s just insane, in this, like, completely beyond way. She’s so much meaner than Joan Didion at Joan Didion’s meanest. She literally is like, evil. In a way that people just don’t do anymore. That doesn’t happen. People don’t really go to town on people at length, after an extended period of thinking about it. Now when we go off on people it’s really brief, like in passing. I mean, I’m guilty of that.

And that was the New York Review of Books wheelhouse, right? Literally you could be like, I’m gonna spend two months working on a piece that is gonna destroy Bob Woodward, or whoever. Which was great. Although, I guess the destruction wasn’t... I mean, he still publishes. So, in the end, what does criticism really do?