I love books. Good, bad, wildly ugly, I love printed word. I read faster than I talk (which is really saying something as people who know me will attest to). I read something out of a book nearly every single day. I am one of those “Luddites” who will cling to my books to my dying breath despite loving my iPad and iBooks with a passion. I also have some exceptionally weird ordering schemes I use on my bookshelves. (Awesomeness/Number of Times Read/Quality/Similarity/Authors) I also have that wonderful habit of trying to read anything type written around me. More than once people have gotten pissy at me for “looking at their chest” and I am like, well then don’t have tiny words printed across it that is hard to read. More often though, people will try to engage me in conversation around a bookshelf. And unless I can identify the books by the spines (which I can on a shockingly large number of books) they will get the joy of repeating themselves, as I am likely not listening. Chances are, I am reading the titles.
As a side effect of this, I tend to know, more than most people, what books are on a shelf. When I was in college, I was waiting on a professor in their office, they had a bookshelf, and I, as always, took time to read all the titles. While every book on the shelf was academic in some form, many had *nothing* to do with what the professor taught. I then noticed something that was very telling. A huge, intricate cobweb, spanning one corner of the shelf. It was clearly ancient, and cut off a large portion of the books, showing they hadn’t been moved in a long time. When the professor got back to his desk, we talked and at the end of the meeting I asked him about one of the books. He hemmed and hawed, but was unable to actually speak on the book (I had read it). At this point I was certain that his bookshelf was just for show. He didn’t read these books.
This sparked what would become a minor hobby of mine. Looking at a bookshelf and trying to identify personalities based on the books the person chooses to show. First, a caveat, the entire system generally breaks down on shelves that are alphabetized (author or title, it ruins the theory) or that are “hidden” bookshelves, like ones in bedrooms, or what have you, that are generally not viewable by the public. I am just looking at shelves that are essentially a “public” face people are putting up. (There are always exceptions, like a very neat alphabetized shelf with dozens of classics, a few recently popular books, and then realizing that the person doesn’t read at all.)
Bookshelves, first and foremost, are generally used to make a person appear smarter. They like having a full bookshelf in their office or living room because it makes them appear more intelligent. Second they are used to hold reference. One can usually spot a “reference” shelf because there are a ton of thick books, with noticeable holes. (If you look by or on the nearby desk or table, you will find the books to fill those holes.) Any time you see holes in a bookshelf and see books stacked about the room or office, you know you are in the presence of someone who actually reads.
Third, they are used to create an appearance. Just like a nice pair of shoes, a tshirt with an image, or a hair style, a bookshelf can portray a person. Let’s use mine for example.
In my living room there are 4 bookshelves (2 book, 2 media). First, this is an excessive number. A standard living room contains 1 bookshelf and one media shelf. Or at least from my experience that is fairly average. A logical conclusion would be that I have all my books in my living room, which would be wrong, there are 4 more bookshelves in my apartment. But back to the 4 shelves in my public space. The media ones are clearly overloaded, and organized into dvd, bluray, tv series, and video games. Then alphabetized. Then beside both shelves are stacks of media, all jumbled, some still wrapped. This shows that media doesn’t get placed where ever. It has to go in it’s spot, or it doesn’t go on the shelf. The organization to it, shows a logical, sometimes ocd mind. Sometimes, because note, the media stacked to the side has no organization to it. The fact that there are “type” groups, as well as being organized shows that I tend to partition things and inherently think of things broken down into subsets.
Now, on to my books. There are books stacked all about the room. On ottomans, arms of the couch, next to the desk, in a pile on the coffee table. Dozens of “floating” books with no place on a shelf. There are two tall book shelves. The one on the right is organized with a majority of the books properly on the shelf, spine out. However, there are dozens of books stacked on their sides over the top of the books on the shelf. There are even more books stacked on their side in front of the spine out books. Also there are toys and figures, jumbled, and not well spaced. The top shelf contains a large number of Robert Jordan books, both hard back and paper back, and a majority of the Harry Potter books. The next shelf down contains Dennis L. McKiernan books, turned on their side and stacked horizontally, spines out. Then over-sized books, Penny Arcade, Sheldon, and some more hardbacks beside those. The third shelf contains another selection of paper backs, while the bottom two shelves are bowed under the weight of dozens of roleplaying books of various rulesets, intermixed with Game Development books, text books, and such. The crowded shelves show that I am a voracious reader. My ability and desire to acquire books out paces me getting rid of or purchasing new shelves.
Note, that the books placed at eye level are generally not well known. (In fact I have only ever known 2 other people who read Dennis L. McKiernan.) But they are also my favorite books. I read them at least once a year, and they are well worn and well loved. I place them specifically on that shelf because not only are they easy to access, but also easy to see. These are my “comfort blanket” books. The ones I would carry everywhere if I could. The ones that the idea of not having makes me twitchy. Then above them and below them are other well loved favorite books. Decorating the shelves are figures and toys that I have collected over the years and that I love to look at. They get jumbled though, when I move them to get to the books and never move them back.
The other shelf is a wondrous mix of dvd overflow, even more rpg books, more paperbacks, and collectibles. It’s scattered, messy, and totally me. The variation of books ranges from World of Warcraft Manga, to the Riverside edition of Shakespeare, to Mercedes Lackey, to Hawthorne. It is, at it’s best, a collection of books I love. It shows my impatience, with organization and with keeping things neat. It shows that I am comfortable with who I am, I don’t mind if you see all my favorite books. I don’t have anything to prove. You won’t find my bibles, philosophy, or Greek tragedies out there, despite the fact that I read and study those things. In fact, I am a bit of an extrovert. I *want* people to see my favorite books. I want people to ask about them and look at them. I love it when people notice I have a copy of the first Harry Potter book that is from England and as such is called Philosopher’s Stone.
How does this apply to other people’s book shelves? Many nerds/geeks have Lord of the Rings, no big stretch there. (In fact many people NOT nerds/geeks have them as well.) But is there a copy of the Silmarillion? If there is, is the binding cracked? The best part is, ask that person, “What did you think?” Some people are honest and say they haven’t read it, that they have it because it deals with the series and shelved it with it’s cousins. Some people will say something like “Oh it wasn’t too bad.” or “I liked the series better.” Busted. That’s what I think every time I hear that. They added this book to the shelf because they want people to think they read it. They feel the need for some sort of street cred that they are more of a fan than you because look, obviously they read it. (To head off confusion, nearly every single person I have ever met who actually read it responds with a wildly negative and sometimes very angry response about that book. It’s TERRIBLE. I persisted and yet only managed to read about half of it before I was in too much pain to continue. My own copy is buried in one of the back shelves because I hate it that much. Stupid book.)
Do they have a “pretty” edition of a book, but no “reading” edition of the book? I have the lovely Complete Works of Shakespeare, with thin pages, gold edging, and lovely images. Right next to several very worn copies of a few of the plays. Do they have paperbacks with no binding cracked? Let me say that this is not necessarily a bad thing, I have dozens of such books in my apartment. Generally they get purchased with the intent to read then shuffled to the side when I get something else. But these books are almost never added to my shelves in a fashion that they are easily seen. (I tend to stack paperback books with their bottom facing out, so there is a vertical stack that allows for more books per shelf.) Also, I find I like to put my Pretty Edition, or Signed Editions, on eye level. Because it isn’t just the book that I am showing off, it is the “specialness” of that copy. Though nearly all of mine have a reading edition tucked in the same shelf.
Do they have Ayn Rand? These books tend to be the line in the sand as far as a shelf that is used and loved, and a shelf that is for show. I have Anthem, spine out. You can see it. But I can also talk about it, how many times I have read it, and *why* I like it. I have a copy of Atlas Shrugged somewhere. (That should give you a clue there.) I read about half of it. Once. I haven’t tried to read it again. I am constantly amazed by people who say they love it, but can’t speak for more than a sentence or two on what it is about. My favorite experience with it was the person who had TWO copies of it. Different covers, on two different shelves and when I asked them why they liked it so much, they knew nothing about it. Then when I pointed out they had two copies… Whew, that was embarrassing.
Do they have only “quality” books? Or do they have McDonald’s books too? I once expressed to a colleague how excited I was that I was going to get to go meet R.A. Salvatore in person. His response was one of swift derision. How could anyone like that two bit hack of a writer? I laughed and replied “No, he isn’t spectacular. His work isn’t literature. But regardless, it always fills the need I have for it. It’s always enjoyable. It’s like… McDonald’s. I don’t want to eat it every day. I like good food. But sometimes, *nothing* else will do. And sometimes, you just want the comfort food of the fries.” He blinked a few times, then nodded. As if this wasn’t something he had considered. I was once in an apartment and saw the Narnia series cuddling next to Dickens next to a Magic the Gathering book. Yep, this guy was not afraid to admit that he liked pulp as well as “quality” books and was more than happy to talk about all three. This also goes for age appropriate books. Do they have Narnia? Or is it too “childish”? I was thrilled to see Susan Cooper’s series on a friends shelf recently.
Do they put “intelligent” books at eye level and try to hide the books they feel are “lesser”? There are very few exceptions to this. I mix the good and the bad. Just like I own bad movies, I own bad books. One exception I make is Julia Quinn. She writes romance novels. Roll your eyes, I’ll wait. All done? Okay. I agree. Romance novels are the *worst*. Poorly written, poorly edited, poorly planned, with terrible dialog, word choice, and plot. As a general rule, not worth the paper they are written on. I have found exactly one author of such novels that I like. That’s JQ. Her writing ability is so stellar, that I am often amazed at her turn of phrase. Her word choice gives me goosebumps. Her characters are deep, flawed, human, and yet, always manage to learn and grow as people. Her dialog is witty. Her situations range all emotions from tender to hilarious to absurd to heartbreaking. And best of all, every single one ends as it should, with a happily ever after. (Again, the McDonald’s idea, sometimes you just need a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.) But despite my fandom, and often passionate defense, I do not put her books out on my living room shelf. In part because they are too often stacked beside my bed in the piles of finished books there, but more because I don’t want someone to color their view of my books/reading habits/discussion because of their view of romance novels (which I will completely admit is spot on 99% of the time).
There are dozens of simple examples that identify if the person cares more about the appearance of the shelf or about the books it contains. Does it really matter? Not really. But I like using it as little windows to people’s true selves. The little things they tip off about themselves. And when I find a shelf I like, then I know I can strike up a conversation about it. I can talk to them about books and it won’t end in awkward silence once I realize they haven’t actually read any of their books. This can also go deeper. Is someone like me and 90% of their shelf is fiction? Or the reverse? Do they keep copies of books, or do they give them away after they have read them? Do they frequent libraries and as such only buy books they love?