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Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Proust (Book) Questionnaire

Designers & Books has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time with a book version of the Proust Questionnaire. Like the original, the book version aims to reveal one's personality through pointed questions, in this case about one's favorites, collection, and habits. I've liked reading the responses that D&B has been posting throughout November, so I thought it would be fun to tackle all of the 25 questions (respondents at D&B have answered between 10 and 25). It ended up being more challenging than fun, but enjoyable nevertheless.

1. Of these, your reading preference: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama:
Nonfiction. I can't remember the last time I read anything else.

2. Your favorite childhood book (or favorite childhood author):
The books that come to mind from my childhood are those by Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman, like And To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street and Are You My Mother? As an adult, my favorite childhood books (for my daughter) are those by Mick Inkpen and Crockett Johnson, such as The Blue Balloon and Harold and the Purple Crayon.

3. Your favorite book character:
Enjil, the fictional master of numbers who believes that math need not be difficult, in Cecil Balmond's Number 9.

4. Your favorite book title (because you like the sound of it):
All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Marshall Berman.

5. A book you could never finish:
Proust's multi-volume In Search of Lost Time (I've only finished volume one, Swann's Way).

6. A book you will never start:
William T. Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, be it the 750-page or 3,300-page versions.

7. If for some reason it turned out that you could save one and only one book from among those you own, which would it be:
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; not a book I return to as often as I should, but one I would have a hard time getting tired of if I had no other books around.

8. A book you should have read but haven’t:
Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change by Sharon Zukin (see #16).

9. The best “book as object” you own (how it looks over what it says):
Herbert Muschamp's File Under Architecture. I bought this book at a used bookstore recently, and while I didn't find it as enjoyable as when I first read it a decade-and-a-half ago as a library book, the cardboard cover, brown paper, Courier text and notes (in various fonts) in the margins make for a lo-fi yet beautiful book.

10. Your reading speed: very slow, slow, moderate, fast, very fast:
It varies, depending on the book, so let's say moderate.

11. While you read, are you a note-taker? If yes, where do you record your notes:
Sometimes, especially if I'm going reviewing the book for a publication. These notes used to happen in a special journal (that I just rediscovered, so I'll resume using it), but sometimes I use whatever journal I have handy or even the bookmark I'm using at the time – never on the pages of a book.

12. Your most idiosyncratic reading habit:
Having to be at a stopping point – end of a chapter, break in the middle of a chapter, etc. – when I'm done reading, be it when getting off the train on the way to work, at the end of lunch, or before bed.

13. The most expensive book you’ve ever bought (and, if you can remember, the price):
I've bought a couple used books that were priced just over $100 –  Ise: Prototype of Japanese Architecture by Kenzo Tange and Peter Zumthor Works: Buildings and Projects, 1979-1997 – but cumulatively I paid $40 for those, since I was trading in other books on both occasions.

14. If you could be any author:
John McPhee; he makes any subject accessible and fascinating. The Control of Nature is a favorite.

15. If you are what you read, the book that best says who you are:
Interpreting Nature: Cultural Constructions of the Environment by I. G. Simmons, not for the subject, but because it's an eclectic grab-bag of interests and influences, and explores the interactions of various disciplines; it's the antithesis of specialized knowledge, something I appreciate and strive for (even if it doesn't come across on this blog or elsewhere).

16. Your favorite writer of the gender opposite yours:
Sharon Zukin.

17. The last book you bought:
Solitary Travelers, a slender, two-volume book in a slipcase documenting the work of visiting scholars at the Cooper Union School of Architecture in 1977.

18. Your favorite place to purchase books:
Used bookstores – rather, good used bookstores, where the selection is eclectic but not overpriced. The last book I bought (previous question) was found at a basement used bookstore (below a library, to boot). Like others in my library, it's a book I never would have known about, or purchased, if I limited myself to new bookstores and online marketplaces.

19. The book you are currently reading:
Deventer by Matthew Stadler. It could be described as "narrative nonfiction," about the closest I get to fiction.

20. The book you will read next:
Crossover by Cecil Balmond.

21. The current location of the book you will read next:
On the shelf next to my chair at home.

22. Your favorite format for books: paper or pixels:
Paper for two reasons: If I have a "book" in digital format, it ends up getting lost amongst all of the other data on my laptop or iPad; paper books can be located near at hand (see previous question), where they won't be forgotten. And because reading a book is like "taking a break" from looking at pixels the rest of the day; it is a breather from distractions and work in the digital realm.

23. If you could have written any book:
City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City by Ian Lambot and Greg Girard, for that would mean I would have experienced KWC before its demolition – not to mention the place is beautifully and thoroughly documented in the book.

24. A book that was particularly meaningful to, or highly recommended by, an acquaintance of yours:
John Updike's Just Looking: Essays on Art, recommended by architect Ann Beha. I've never read Updike's fiction, but his takes on art tell me that interests and expression need not be limited to categories or genres.

25. If you have the chance to plan it, the last book you’ll read:
George Perec's Life A User's Manual. This is a book I started a few years ago, but circumstances kept me from finishing it, reading only Part 1 of 6. There is something fitting about a last book being one that focuses on the intricate and wondrous puzzle-like details of a singular moment in time. And it would be good to end with a novel.


  1. Wow. These are your answers, right? I envy how widely you have read. It's a good thing to have access to used books, especially when libraries are virtually absent in the area one lives. And to think I haven't read even one book on the list! I definitely should read more architectural non-fiction in paperback. I like that point about paperback being a break from pixels (and their eye-straining light). It's something I want to take deliberate steps to cultivate as a habit.

    It's not surprising that you don't have the time (I wouldn't say interest) for non-fiction. It can be difficult to do so when a lot of non-fiction writing needs to be done. Like this blog.

    How about short architectural fiction for starters? Who knows, you might enjoy some of the offerings on my blog. You can try this first:

    I should try filling this questionnaire (I hope I won't be disappointed with myself. Lol.)

    Thanks, John.

    1. I'll agree that access to bookstores – new and used – as well as libraries is a great part of living in NYC. Should be a right rather than a luxury, in my opinion. Nevertheless, there are still too many great bookstores that have closed since I've been living here. Fortunately new ones have been appearing lately, a good sign.

      I've read a little bit of architectural fiction, such as Beyond journal, but it's not something that has swept me away.

  2. John,

    Your response to #18 piqued my interest since I recently moved to NYC and am dying to find some eclectic and reasonably priced bookstores. Could you please share a few of your favorite spots with us?

    Keep up the great work,

    1. Already have, in my list of NYC Bookstores. The list can be found also via the links at the top of my blog. Two or three in the top ten have used books, and most of the ones tied for 11th are used bookstores. The one I mention in #18, for reference, is the Book Cellar on York Avenue. There are also plenty in Brooklyn, some of new, that I really should explore. But living in Queens and working in Manhattan, I don't make it out there as much as I'd like.


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