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Does Your Bookshelf Reflect You or Your Future?

The Well-Tended Bookshelf by Laura Miller is an interesting essay in The New York Times Sunday Book Review section about how a person’s bookshelf reflects who they are, or at least what type of person they are.

Here’s some salient quotage:

There are two general schools of thought on which books to keep, as I learned once I began swapping stories with friends and acquaintances. The first views the bookshelf as a self-portrait, a reflection of the owner’s intellect, imagination, taste and accomplishments. “I’ve read The Magic Mountain,” it says, and “I love Alice Munro.”

The other approach views a book collection less as a testimony to the past than as a repository for the future; it’s where you put the books you intend to read.

In the Hunter/Gatherer scheme of book buying, I am a Gatherer, so I think my own bookshelf reflects all the books I’d like to read (and never will, says this biblioholic‘s simple arithmetic). But at the same time, I also have shelves of books that one (or at least I) would consider to be science fiction and fantasy classics. Maybe these secondary shelves are more of the “Who I Am” type of bookshelf mentioned in the essay — in which case, I am neither Type A or Type B, but a hopeless, bastardized hybrid of both. Damn me!

What does you bookshelf say?

[via Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine]

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

8 Comments on Does Your Bookshelf Reflect You or Your Future?

  1. My bookshelf says I have a three-year-old at home.

  2. My husband and I own somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000 books — we *think*.  Not sure.  I’ve started cataloging in LibraryThing, got through about half the bookcases in the house, and wound up with more than 7,000 books.  Never got back to it, at least not yet.  This doesn’t include the books in my husband’s office on campus, where he teaches English; you can imagine what that office looks like.

    There was a Great Purge in the mid-90s when I decided to get rid of everything that I’d read that wasn’t a first edition.  So I’d say I’ve probably read only about 2,000 of the books on the shelves.

    I’m 52 years old.

    What do you think the chances are I’ll read everything we own before I die?  Unless, of course, it’s true that you don’t die until you’ve read all your books.  In that case, I’m golden.

  3. Like Terry, I have many many books that I intend to read on my shelves. I acquire books at a rate of about one a week and read one in about two weeks. I’m only 23 so if I stopped buying I could probably finish all the ones I have. However, the chances of that happening is slim to none. I’m thinking about employing a strategy of only buying a book after I finish two others.


  4. I have an interesting mixture of books which I’ve read previously, and books which I haven’t read. Actually, I’d say it’s about half-an-half. I buy books that look interesting to read NOW, and books that look interesting to read SOMEDAY…and sometimes, books that I have no particular desire to read. Those are the ones that surprise me when, two years later, I suddenly discover that I really want to read something by Margaret Weis and lo! I have books by her.

    I also re-read on a regular basis most of the books I’ve read before. All of them, randomly, everything from the Star Wars novels I read as a teenager, to Neil Gaiman books over-and-over, to harder books like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, which I’ll start like a long journey and read in pieces over the course of a month or two (reading other books in between pieces, as a break).

    I think the article’s fascinating. I don’t tend to cull my book collection…but only because, as I said, I am always using and reading ’em. And if I’m not yet, I bet I will eventually. I have “reading copies” and “collector’s copies” of some books, but don’t tend to do anything with the collector’s books except hold onto them. (And sometimes, they differ from reading copies by only being a nice hardcover I don’t want to read in the bath. Or a signed book worth some money). Mostly, when I buy fancy books — like a lovely red-leatherbound edition of the Lord of the Rings — it’s the same as buying a piece of artwork for the wall. I have, I dunno, seven or eight copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy throughout the house, in various editions throughout the years. I’ll read any of them. The big red-leather edition is for looking at. Like art on the wall.

    I’m not sure that the bit about being a young person and using the bookshelf for identity quite applies to me. Except that I’m a voracious, obsessive reader, and my office with its shelves and piles and heaps of books tends to reflect someone who is seriously into books.

    I also have a whole non-fiction library, seperate from the rest of my library. I don’t tend to browse it as much, until something clicks in my head and then I’ll have two or three books from it on a particular subject that I’ll read obsessively.

    …Terry has 12 to 15,000 books. That is SEXY. I wonder how many books we have. (Never enough.)

  5. I am one of those rare people who has actually read most of the books I own (a week ago I could have said all, but then I got an early Christmas present and took a few books from my dad).  I only own about 400 books, but I use the library a lot since I currently don’t have the money to be buying many books. I’ve also reread many of the books I own. There are several series I’ve read many times, some of them more than 10 times. 

    I do purge occassionally, but that’s mostly b/c I’ve been doing a lot of cross-country moving. My basis for deciding to whether or not to keep a book: Will I ever read this again? Am I keeping this book just for appearances? If the answer is yes to the first and no to the second, then the book stays.

    I think my books are a combination of who I am and who I want to be. I keep the books I want to read again. I read certain books/series when I want to be reminded of certain characteristics or be inspired somehow. I read Anne of Green Gables when I want to be happy and feel more optimistic. I read The Deed of Paksenarrian when I want to be inspired to keep fighting in the face of despair or remember how to accept trials without giving up. I read The Ship Who Sang when I need to be reminded that appearances and actions aren’t always what they seem. These books, these characters are my friends and I go to them for advice and counsel on how I should act.  So yes, my bookshelf is a look into my past, but it also is a look at who I am trying to become.

  6. The books that I haven’t yet read (never more than half a dozen, I read two per month) are situated in a dark corner of the book shelf. Having so many unread books displayed prominently would feel like faking, pretending to be something I’m not. I look at people’s shelf and say, oh you’ve read this, wow and that. And they say, actually, haven’t read any of it. So what’s the point?!

  7. Bernd, yeah I do that too. My books that I’ve read are on the shelves and in rows. The books I HAVEN’T read but am getting to are in stacks, on a corner of my office’s big desk.I take a certain amount of pride in showing people my library and saying “this is the stuff I’ve read,” and then casually gesturing to a big ol’ stack of books and saying “oh, this is what I’m reading coming up here…” 🙂

    Some books are still in boxes, and that’s fine. When I suddenly want ’em, I know where they are and they’ll come out. It was only a week ago that something clicked and I really, really wanted to read a Bentley Little novel, dug around, found one, read it. A week before that, it would never have crossed my mind.

    I love reading. 😀

    (I’ve always wanted to do an Art Garfunkel sort of list, of all the books I’ve read throughout the years. But I doubt I’m as dilligent as he is.)

  8. I think I fall into the “hopeless, bastardized hybrid of both” camp. If I enjoy a book, I keep it. There’s an emotional bond. I might read it again or need it to reference, and on rare occasions I might loan one or two out, but that’s a big, big extension of trust. There’s also the steadily growing pile of new stuff. Ultimately the two types co-exist on the shelves happily enough.

    The cull is something that only comes every couple of years, and that’s generally when all available space has finally run out and my wife refuses to let my dragon’s hoard of books spill into another room. The books that are donated are usually the ones that I read, disliked, and forgot to get rid of earlier.

    I once had a friend who was an extreme packrat – no book, ever, was ejected from his collection. Probably one of the reasons fewer and fewer of us volunteered to help him move every couple of years – those book boxes were heavy!


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