Hope is the thing with bookshelves

What are bookshelves for? Are they for displaying the books you’ve read? The books you want to read? The books you would like to have read but haven’t gotten around to yet? The books you want people to think you’ve read? Matt Selman started the ball rolling on this question:

RULE No.1: THE PRIME DIRECTIVE — It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it. Therefore, to be placed on Matt Selman’s living room bookshelves, a book must have been read cover to cover, every word, by Matt Selman. If you are in the home of Matt Selman and see a book on the living room shelves, you know FOR SURE it has been read by Matt Selman.

RULE No.1: COROLLARY A: The living room books ARE NOT the combined book collections of Matt Selman and his wife. (She may have read some of them, but who knows, really.) This is only the collection of Matt Selman.

Ezra Klein takes up the challenge:

No, this is all wrong. Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read — those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I am the type of person who is very interested in a history of the Reformation, but am not, as it happens, the type of person with the time to read 900 pages on the subject. More importantly, I am the type of person who amasses many books, on all sorts of subjects. I’m pretty sure that’s what a bookshelf is there to prove. The reading of those books is entirely incidental. The question becomes how we’ll project all of this when Kindles takes off and all our books are digital.

Of course, one of the advantages of having a big book collection on display is that during an argument like this you can shut down the debate by pulling out a quotation from some irrefutable authority. In Scott McLemee’s case, that means loading a few lines of Montaigne into the cannon. But he also injects a note of practicality — maintaining a book collection vs. sustaining a healthy marriage:

Around here, the “prime directive” is that there should not be any books on the floor. If a marriage is its own little civilization, this is among the basic clauses in our social contract. Insofar as “aspiration” comes into play, I find it operating at the level of daydreams about replacing one of the closets or windows with another set of shelves.

Clothing and the outside world are much overrated, in my opinion, which does not carry very much weight in this particular case. Bookshelves are storage; that is all. The idea of using them for “display” seems cute and improbable.

In my pre-house life, I spent a great deal of time moving between apartments, and each time involved moving many, many crates of books. Those books and the shelves they lived on covered just about every wall of each apartment I rented. The unspoken (well, not so unspoken) agreement in my marriage is that now we have a study, so my books will live in that study. Books that wander out of the study and curl up around the bed are only tolerated for so long before they are herded back into the study. So technically, they’re not on display anymore, so theoretically I couldn’t care less what anybody thinks.

What’s really interesting, and what’s been left out of the equation so far, is not so much using your book collection to project an image of yourself to other people. It’s what you learn about people from the way they react to your book collection. In the apartment era, I surreptitiously kept an eye on what volumes got taken down for a quick scan during parties. The single most popular book was Patrick Moore’s The Atlas of the Universe, and the people who looked at it were invariably the most interesting party guests.

As a freelance writer, I have the dodge of being able to claim unread books for their future utility. I have a lot of books that I haven’t read, but they’re about things I know I’m going to be interested in, somewhere down the line. Just as I know, deep in my heart, that somewhere down the line Shakira will invite me over to her place for some drinks and a few rounds of Twister. I just know it. And if it doesn’t happen, I think the positive value of hope and expectation will have made me a better person.

2 thoughts on “Hope is the thing with bookshelves

  1. Batocchio says:

    My bookcases are overflowing; they’re for storage. Honestly, if people are impressed, that’s cool, but when I moved the most recently (boy, can I relate to that part of your post) I picked old favorites, essentials I wanted for reference, and when it came to novels, some books I hadn’t gotten a chance to read yet. I had a prof who only put books in his office that he’d read twice, and that number was staggering.

    You’re right about how interesting it is to see what people react to, and when I visit someone else’s place, their movies, music and books are always revealing and a great opening conversation.

    Personally, I need to have several books going at once, and piled and bookmarked near my desk and bed…

    One of my favorite lines is the observation that when we buy books, we make the mistake of thinking we’re also buying the time to read them.

  2. […] greatness of Wikipedia. The purpose of bookshelves. The bill for Iraq and what else it could have paid for. The career of renowned author and essayist […]

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