A few weeks ago I set about organizing my bookshelf. In high school I volunteered for the school library (which was, at the time, a way to get out of an entire period of class), and I came to genuinely appreciate properly sorted books. I’m often bothered when bookstores aren’t as strict as we were in the school library, but I’ve been terribly hypocritical when it comes to my personal collection.
Predictably, I stopped a bit short of my goal in organizing my bookshelf, though I did make a bit of progress. I grouped my books (very) loosely into categories and genres, then sorted alphabetically by author/title. When I got to a reasonable stopping point, something came over me and I decided to take a photograph of my newly (semi-)organized bookshelf.
I immediately justified this bizarre behavior to myself in two ways. One was that I needed proof that I had finally managed to impose some sort of order on this part of my room, where before there had been none. The second was that I wanted something to look at months from now, after my bookshelf has devolved through a process of entropy into its old and chaotic self, to tell myself “at least you tried.”
The more I think about it, however, the more I think there’s a deeper reason for my want to take a photo. I think my bookshelf — and specifically the books in it — say a lot about me. They even speak to who I am right now: I have more books than can fit on my main bookshelf, so I cycle them out, keeping the books I pick up most often or that I’ve most recently needed to get at in this bookshelf.
There’s an element of self-image at play here. Looking at these books, I see some of who I want to be or who I like to pretend I am. Do I really need The Bhagavad Gita and The Nicomachean Ethics prominently displayed at the top? I haven’t opened either since I had to write about them for school. Maybe having them there makes me feel just a bit better about myself.
Overall, I find my photo analogous to teenagers listing all their favorite bands and television shows on their Facebook and MySpace profiles. We all, to a certain extent, define ourselves by the things we like and the media we consume. This photo is as good a summation of who I am as anything I’ve put online, and I can imagine that a stranger looking through my books would get a simple but reasonably good impression of who I am and what matters to me. For example, I have several Dawkins books and Hofstadter’s Godel Escher, Bach right off the bat, followed by The Communist Manifesto and eventually two copies of Snow Crash. That’s already starting to paint a picture in your mind of me, whether it be positive or negative, that is probably somewhat close to the truth.
At the end of the day, this bookshelf must be functional. It can’t be purely for self-image. So, looking over the photograph, I see some things I’m hesitant to present as representational of myself. There’s a section dedicated to comics and manga (which is actually deceptively small — it’s only a subset of my collection), unsorted textbooks shoved unceremoniously in the corner, and so on. There’s even the framing of the photo: you can see the mess of cords on the ground, the dusty table, and other tell-tale signs of a student’s apartment (edit: and bookmarks! though to be fair I’m in the process of re-reading many of the bookmarked books). Unlike a teenager’s carefully crafted online profile, my photo is at heart a snapshot of my real habits and interests — laziness and guilty pleasures included — not a painting of what I want others to think they are.
So, to answer the question I started with: a bookshelf says a lot about you. At least, it does in my case. In the future I’ll try to remember to glance at the book collections of friends and acquaintances when I have the pleasure of visiting their house, though that’s something I generally do out of habit already. As for right now, I’m off to clean up some cords.