Wednesday, April 15, 2009
To what degree does the display of a book matter?
I wonder what the author of The Backs of Books would say...
Meds (a commenter at MR) wrote:
Displaying books on your personal shelf is far different from reading in public...I hate when strangers can see what I am currently reading, whether it is a scholarly journal or the New York Post, but I love for my house guests to see what's on my shelf. It gives them a chance to understand me better as a friend. But random train passengers...I could care less.I've approached a few people on the Metro upon noticing what books they were reading. One man in particular I remember was reading Bing West's No True Glory, his first-person account on the battle in Fallujah. The man was mostly through the book, and I was about to purchase it (it was in my Amazon shopping cart), so I wanted to ask what he thought. He looked military, though not in uniform (it's easier for me to approach strangers I think are military), and our conversation proved me right, and he highly recommended the book, though it took a few moments to persuade him that I could handle the intensity of the gore - he was obviously uncomfortable recommending such a book to a young civilian female.
I don't think I've ever read anything on the Metro that I've been ashamed of enough to hide the cover. But there are books I won't read there. I'll read about the psychology of killing or about war, but I won't read anything that has a cover or title that seems remotely sympathetic to Nazis or genocidal Communist regimes. I'll read that stuff in front of friends, because I feel like my friends will either already know why I'm reading it and my real opinions on it, or they'll *ask*. Strangers on a train? I try not to antagonize strangers whose sanity and strength I don't know.
At home, there are almost no books on display in the main living areas, the places guests are. That's mostly out of deference to my husband, who doesn't want the clutter of books breaking up the themes we're working on for those rooms. So my library is the basement. It's a finished basement, carpeted, but with little to no outside light. The walls are *all* bookshelves, and the center of the room is always cluttered, both from the necessary standing torchieres and duhumidifier, and from the piles of books, magazines, and craft projects I'm always in the middle of. I rarely invite people down and I warn them of the mess. I don't mind people scanning the shelves, and I don't mind adults taking down books to look at (though I prefer to hand them the books that are antiques or expensive). Books are grouped by topic, so Garry Wills' Why I Am a Catholic lives next to Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian.
I love looking at people's bookshelves and seeing what they own or are reading, but that method of gaining insight into a person's beliefs and opinions is limited. The books show a person's interests, maybe, the things he is curious about, or the books are gifts from friends or family and are inscribed so he feels guilty throwing them away. Bookshelves are a source of questions, not answers.
Some questions that emerge from my book collection are questions I'd rather not some people ask. It's one thing for a liberal friend to find John Lott's The Bias Against Guns. It's another for a conservative family member to find One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom.
All my books are downstairs. There is no showing off or conversation fodder though I'll fetch books as a reference comes up in conversation that makes me think someone might like to see something in a book. I don't make guests venture into the chaos that is my library, the "storage" section of the unmedicated and untamed part of my brain.
The fewer unintentional signals I give the better I manage.
Meanwhile, I'm with you on bookcases being 'private.' I have one or two coffee table books out that highlight my love of costumes, but otherwise the bookshelves are back in the office. I really don't need people knowing about what self-help topics I choose to read.
I completely agree about the self-help books. I'm actually embrrssed to be seen reading (or even to read) books in the X for Dummies or The Complete Idiot's Guide to Y series, since I'm *not* a dumb idiot, I'm just ignorant in that particular field (woodcraft, electronics, personal finance, etc.).
Those titles have actually discouraged me from buying those books. I'll instead note the author(s) and then find other books they have written on the same subject that are not part of the Dummies or Idiots collection.
Ah, the troubles of arrogance.