What does your bookshelf say about you?

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.

Photo of my bookshelf

This is the photo I took of my bookshelf

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.

7 thoughts on “What does your bookshelf say about you?”

  1. Is there any way to get a better resolution photo of the books, or better yet, a text listing? I currently own about 1000 books and have 2 shelves of personal favorites and really enjoyed the article. Maybe we can do a few swaps sometime.

  2. Hey,
    I’m a publishing student and for me (and many many other people) it’s a natural thing to rush to the bookshelf when you’re in another person’s home. Like you said, you can tell a lot about people by looking at their books.
    It’s THE status symbol that conveys intelligence (that’s why you still see professors and various other “smart” people pictured in front of their bookshelves) – and that’s why most people feel guilty and the need to defend themselves like you did for having “lesser” literature featured in their book collection. Personally, I don’t think that makes you appear less literate, but actually genuine and likeable. Nobody reads Chaucer as guilty pleasure :)

  3. I got pointed here after some drunken stumbling through Reddit, and as chance would have it, your bookshelf == mine! Begin nerdgasm:
    Gaiman, Stephenson and Vonnegut are known by everyone and their modernist grandmother for their excellent excellence, but nice pick with Danielewski and House of Leaves! It is, by a large margin (1/2 an inch, in fact), my favorite piece of fiction ever; I wonder if we took the same Lovecraftian path towards it?

    G.E.B. is a staple for any computer scientist (Schaum’s is bleh for discrete), but I’m glad to see you went turn-of-the-century on that shit and got Nagel/Newman as well (hopefully you have the edition with Hofstadter’s preface).

    Dawkins: pretentious (and not even in Hofstadter’s disarmingly charming way), but good. Kinda crazy-militant for my godlessness, though.
    Camus: loved him in high school, but time changes all things.
    Borges: still chewing on Labyrinths myself, but I’m enjoying him.

    And because I always wished someone would stumble upon my bookshelf and be inspired enough to make a short list of things I’d love to read, here ya go!
    I Am A Strange Loop, The Mind’s I – Hofstadter
    Only Revolutions – Danielewski (make sure you get the hardcover with the eyes)
    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Pirsig
    QED – Feynman
    Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
    A World Without Time – Yourgrau (Godel’s incompleteness theorem applied to time, or, 200 pages to fuck your brain by)
    I’ll close with a complete potshot at your taste in fantasy: get The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, cuz it’s the goods.

    1. I wonder if we took the same Lovecraftian path towards it?

      Yes! I spent most of my high school days devouring anything Lovecraft-related I could find.

      And thanks a lot for the list of recommendations. I already have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Infinite Jest has been on my reading list for ages but it’s a bit intimidating.

  4. I had three 6′x3′ bookcases filled at my house. In the last spring cleaning I looked at these books and thought: which have I not even opened in 5 years? Which do I never intend to read again? Which am I keeping only because owning them says something about me and not because of their content?

    Almost all of those in the “5 years+” category also fell into “I’ll never read them again.” The “say something about me” category felt silly when I realized that NO ONE except me and my pets see them.

    After I got over my initial pride, I got rid of all of the above. I’m now down to 1 bookshelf and my life feels better for it. (Yeah, 1 bookshelf isn’t tiny but remember: I got rid of 2/3 of my collection.)

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