David Lavin’s Diminishing Library

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 to David Lavin, the president of the speaking agency that represents intellectual heavyweights from Salman Rushdie to Alissa Quart. I arrived at Lavin’s house at the same time as many people from the Lavin Agency’s Toronto office; we were there for a party, and to take home some books. Over oysters and white wine, Lavin was telling us all about his library, and inviting us to grab as many books as we could. He’d piled up a couple hundred right by the front door, free for the taking. Later this year, Lavin will be moving into publishing, with an ebook series of long essays from the agency’s speakers. In the meantime, he’s downsizing his physical library, making space for better reading, and putting some of his favourite books in the hands of people who will read them.

I’ve already given away over a thousand books. At one point I had three thousand books. Why am I willing to do this now? Some of these books I’ve carried from house to house for 40 years. I’ve had some since I was ten years old. Why am I getting rid of them now? They don’t mean the same thing, and I want other people to read them, because they’re good books. It could be one of those things that I’ll regret. I guess I’ll find out.

Now you read Graham Greene, read a selection of his books, and you’ll actually cover all of the major issues of humanity. You’ll cover religion, you’ll cover relationships at their most base level and at their most exalted level, you’ll look at politics, you’ll look at everything. When I first heard about Graham Greene, I thought he was my dad’s kind of writer. I was very dismissive. And then I read one novel, and I couldn’t believe it. I read every single word he’d ever written, because he is the master. Graham Greene is one of the great masters, and his characters and narrative are completely engaged in the world.

People forget that reading and thinking and all these things are fun. I don’t see the difference between a great chess game and a great novel—they both bring pleasure.

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