Contented Reader

just point me toward the nearest library

When I visit your house, I look at your bookshelves. And I judge you.

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I dated a woman, for a little while.  Things seemed to be going okay.  Then I visited her house.  She only had one bookshelf- one of those narrow ones.  And most of the bookshelf was empty, or housed a few tchotchkes.  Only one shelf of the bookshelf actually had books on it.  About half of those were clearly left over from her college classes.  As we got to know each other more, I discovered that the names ‘Dorothy Parker’ and ‘Terry Pratchett’ were unfamiliar to her.  It was clear that there was no possibility of a relationship here.  And sure enough, we soon called it quits.

I visited the apartment of a classmate in graduate school, to work together on a class project.  She had lots of bookshelves, in every room of her house, and as I examined them, I discovered that she had many of the same books I have, plus a moderately impressive number of books on medieval writers and on serial killers.  I knew that we were kindred spirits, and a decade later, we are the best of friends.  In fact, we have plans to go see “Cowboys and Aliens” tonight.

When I come to your house, I look for your bookshelves as soon as I can.  Sometimes I’ll try to be discreet, and check out your bookshelves while you think I’m in the bathroom.  Sometimes I’ll be brazen about it, stopping in my tracks to examine your books.  I don’t want you to worry about whether I’m judging you, so I’ll let you know:  Yes.  I’m judging you.

First, I’m looking for the presence of books.  If I can’t find evidence of leisure reading in your house, you have just lost ALL my respect.  No, a cookbook, a technical manual for your job, and a Bible don’t cut it.  If I can’t see that you read for pleasure, then you are not someone with anything to say that I need to listen to.

Second, I’m looking for the presence of good books.  I’d like to see a few classics on your shelf, but not too many.  A dogeared copy of Huckleberry Finn, a collected works of Shakespeare or Chaucer, Jane Eyre, these are all good signs that you’re a person of taste.  A large, matching set of classics in leather covers makes me think you bought them for decoration or to impress me, and if I can’t see creased spines or blunted corners that persuade me they’ve been read, then yes, I am quietly making fun of you in my head.

Third, I’m looking for chunks of books.  What do you have a bunch of?  Zombie novels?  Poetry?  Comic strip collections?  Do you have everything by some author, and if so, who?  I want to see what you love so much you keep buying it.  If you love the same things that I love, then you have not only my respect but my friendship, as well.  If you love something that’s different from my own shelves but interesting – origami manuals, Victorian biographies, modernist poetry- then I’ll ask you about it, and be glad to have an interesting conversation and new stuff to learn.

If your collection is in a genre that I have no interest in – Westerns, say, or romances- I’ll be cautious but hopeful.  It’s likely that we don’t have anything in common, but we can still be polite to one another, and I won’t assume that you are a bad or stupid person, the way I would if you didn’t have any books at all.

If your books are mostly about angels, Jesus, crystals, or saints, I will be looking for an excuse to leave early.  You’re very frightening to me.

I love doing this, looking at someone else’s books and trying to understand something about them.  If I had a universal skeleton key, I would use it to let myself into the homes of all my neighbors and look for books.  There is no better, quicker way of understanding a person than to spend a few minutes in front of their bookshelves.


Written by Contented Reader

July 29, 2011 at 10:08 am

Posted in Opinions


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