Dec/Jan 2008

Uncommon Readers

John Freeman and Nicole Aragi’s combined library is the happy merging of bookishness as vocation and avocation.

Radhika Jones


If I tell you that Nicole Aragi and John Freeman have not one but two rolling-track library ladders—in the living room and in the bedroom—by which to ascend to the top of their fiction-packed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, you will understand why I was loath to leave their Chelsea apartment after visiting it on a warm Sunday morning for the purpose of writing this column. That Aragi laid on a full Middle Eastern breakfast, complete with cups of potent Arabic coffee, only made departure a sadder prospect.

Aragi is a literary agent whose clients include Jonathan Safran Foer, Manil Suri, Edwidge Danticat, and Junot Díaz. Freeman is a critic and the president of the National Book Critics Circle, where he is leading a campaign to keep book coverage a vital part of the national print media. Their combined collection is the happy merging of bookishness as vocation and avocation, and in literary conversation they complement each other just as happily: Aragi is sharp, striking, and infectiously enthusiastic about the writers and works she admires, while Freeman, who was born in Ohio and has the midwestern good looks to prove it, radiates earnest curiosity and intelligence. Aragi moved into this apartment ten years ago, and capacious shelving was the first item on her to-do list. “I had the bookcases made before I did the kitchen,” she recalls. “The carpenter kept saying, ‘What are you going to put on them?’ And I kept saying, ‘Books!’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, but what else?’ I could feel him not understanding.” Freeman, who has shared the space with her for four years, understands; he says that the first time they met, he spent seven hours (wired on Arabic coffee) with his back to her, browsing the shelves and chatting with her about their contents.

Aragi grew up in Libya and then Lebanon (her father was Lebanese, her mother is English), but mostly she grew up on books. “I remember being in Lebanon and reading To Kill a Mockingbird,” she says. “My teachers were scolding me for reading ahead, saying, ‘You’ve got to stay with us,’ and I thought, ‘I can’t stop!’” Clearly, what she calls the “mad-reader signs” manifested at an early age. She went to college in England but has always been partial to American fiction; she recalls going through a Faulkner phase, then moving straight on to Richard Russo. “All those blue-collar communities that Russo described, I was really attracted to,” she says. “I had a vision of myself moving to America and hanging out in a diner all the time.” Meanwhile, the young Freeman was busy falling in love with nineteenth-century English novels in Sacramento, California, where he lived from the age of ten. “I’d be sitting on the roof of our house, reading Wuthering Heights, wishing things were a little more pastoral,” he says. Aragi supplies the image: “Like someone was going to come over the horizon in a frock.”

Freeman moved to New York after graduating from Swarthmore and promptly caught the collecting bug, when he walked into the Strand and saw a first edition of Naked Lunch with the original jacket. “I had written my thesis on Jack Kerouac, and I was really into the Beats,” he says. “I saw that, and it was like seeing a whole new version of the book. It was like the book was alive and had been brought back from the dead and was standing there.” The five-hundred-dollar price tag was too high for him at the time, but in the years since he’s bought “tons” of first editions, from Skyline Books on Eighteenth Street in particular, including a treasured copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. “That was like a whole other education,” he says, “going to bookshops.”

Bookshops were part of Aragi’s professional education, too. “I knew I wanted to be in books in some way,” she says. “I applied to all the publishing houses after university saying, ‘Take me,’ but they didn’t.” She was walking with a friend and saw a storefront property for sale in Wimbledon; the friend suggested she buy it and open a bookstore. All went well, until the neighborhood became more fashionable and rents began doubling yearly. She recalls, “You start to look at the bookshelves and think, OK, I need more gardening and less poetry. Or I don’t need poetry at all!”

Aragi sold the store once she began to feel like an accountant, but she still arranges her fiction alphabetically by author, though she confesses that she has become embarrassed by the habit since nobody else seems to have it. (Full disclosure—this correspondent sympathizes.) She and Freeman have placed framed photographs and other odds and ends at strategic intervals on the shelves, ready to make way for a sudden influx of, say, novels written by people whose last names begin with E. Two freestanding towers hold the American editions of works by Aragi’s authors, while Freeman’s impressive poetry collection is housed in the entryway. “The first books I ever bought were poetry books,” he says; he recently added a first edition of Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. Memoir, travel, and science are in the bedroom, along with more fiction. Literary criticism and American history are kept off-site in Freeman’s office, a room he rents on the floor below.

Both Aragi and Freeman have an eye for presentation. Aragi is fond of sets. “I love it when there’s an image that continues along the spines,” she says, pointing out Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series, among others. “I used to put the cheap old paperbacks behind them—the ones you actually read—and then put the pretty ones up front.” She and Freeman pull out two handsome editions of works by Haruki Murakami: a signed limited-edition Kafka on the Shore from Harvill—Freeman draws my attention to the beautiful endpaper—and a charmingly packaged Norwegian Wood comprising two small paperbacks tucked into a bento box, which Aragi bought in England. “Just what people should do for Murakami,” she says approvingly. There’s also a row of Overlook editions of P. G. Wodehouse (Aragi is a big fan), a pile of Tintins, and a colorful set of hardcover Zane Greys, a legacy, Aragi says, from her snake-farming uncle in South Africa.

The literary theme continues off the shelf. In the living room is a triptych of square canvases, the work of Aragi’s client Rabih Alameddine, the Lebanese writer and painter. She calls them her three-for-the-price-of-one paintings. “I wanted to buy one,” she says, “but I didn’t say that to him because I knew he’d give it to me for free. So I told him a friend of mine wanted to buy one, and asked him how much, and I said, ‘Send it to me, because he travels a lot.’ And Rabih fell for it. He sent it to me, and I sent him the check, but obviously it had my name on it. He called me up and said, ‘Was that for you?’ And I said yes. And the next day, he sent me two more.” There’s also a Sam Messer typewriter painting; another work by Messer, a quirky drawing of Denis Johnson and his hat, hangs above the front door. On Aragi’s desk sits a Joseph Cornell–esque curio given to her by Foer, who in 2001 edited a collection of writing inspired by the American artist titled A Convergence of Birds. It’s an antique bird-watching kit, with binoculars and (Foer’s touch) bits of stories tucked away in its card-catalogue drawers. “I’m not sure how it works,” Freeman says, as he pulls open one of them, but regardless, it looks nifty. Ten paperback covers of Foer’s debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, in its various color combinations hang framed above the bedroom door—Aragi says the blue and yellow is most popular—and by the front door is a poster of the resplendently Bollywood UK cover of Suri’s first novel, The Death of Vishnu. Near the kitchen, another poster celebrates Díaz’s new novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Aragi and Freeman have merged their books—“a terrifying thing to do,” says Aragi, though Freeman points out that “it’s a good reason to get authors to sign them.” This has resulted in a few cases of multiples and, consequently, amusing rhetorical questions such as “How did we end up with three copies of The English Patient?” It also introduces certain intellectual challenges. “You live on your own, you have your books, you’ve read your books,” Aragi says, “and then someone moves in with all these books you’ve never read, and you’re faced with your own ignorance.” Freeman is not daunted. “I calculated in here,” he says. “Between the two of us, I counted up all the books I hadn’t read, and I thought, OK, eight to ten years.” Of course, that’s only if they stop acquiring more, which doesn’t seem likely. “I bought two this week,” Freeman admits. “I try to buy small books now. But occasionally,” he laughs, “something larger walks in.”

Radhika Jones is managing editor of the Paris Review.

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