Thursday, February 28, 2008

Books and More Books

Thanks to the lovely women over at Fertile Plots, I had the opportunity to read this article by Scott McLemee: Bookshelf and Self.

It is definitely worth reading, if only to consider your own rules regarding the bookshelves. The article starts as follows:

“It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it.” So runs the “prime directive” for bookshelf etiquette, as issued by a blogger for Time magazine named Matt Seligman.

A counter proposal is issued by Ezra Klein in The American Prospect (also cited in the article):

“Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read,” says Klein; “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.

McLemee does not endorse either of these views--as he astutely points out, both Seligman and Klein assume that there will be somebody else who comes and looks at the books on the shelves, which is just not the case for McLemee. The "prime directive" for books at his house is that there shall be no books on the floor.

Which makes me wonder about my view on bookshelves and books. Many people look at books as room decor: a nice set of leather bound anything, preferably with gilt titles stamped into the spine goes so well with the sofa and curtains. I am not one of those people. My books are generally and aesthetic disgrace.

This is because, where possible, I buy paperbacks rather than hardcovers, and I rarely buy books for their aesthetic value. I like paperbacks because they are less expensive--not only am I not paying for the hard covers, but then I can buy more books for the same price. Paperbacks are not nearly as heavy, and so I can keep one in my purse for any dull moment that I can use for reading. Paperbacks are also forgiving--I feel so bad when I get marinara sauce or catsup on a hardcover, but I'm not upset by dirtying a paperback. I'll even break the spines of paperbacks by folding them back onto themselves to make them easier to read. I read while I cook; I read while I eat--I don't actually read while I'm driving, but I might sneak in a couple of paragraphs while at a stop light.

My bookshelves? Most of them are full of books I have read, since I read so much and there are very few books that have come into my house without my having read them. There are some exceptions, of course: I have bought a few books that I don't seem to be able to get to reading--but I would estimate it as less than 5% of the total number of books I own.

Books make great souvenirs and many of our books are about places we have been. Our trip to London back in 2005 ended with us buying books about most of the places we visited--the pictures are better than any I would be able to take, and we get more history and interesting information from them than from the tours.

We installed a number of bookshelves upstairs in our house, in the hall which runs from the front of the house to the back. It is the single longest wall in our house, and we filled it with shelves to accommodate my books. And it is crammed full. A solid quarter of these shelves are filled with my daughters' books, and they are doubled up, with books balanced sideways on top of the standing books--anything to get more books in. Another quarter of the shelves holds our non-fiction collection. Which is smaller than even the kids' books section. Some of these are coffee table book sized, which means they are beautiful, but hard to store.

Back when I had time and a better book-to-linear-shelf-foot ratio, I used to organize my books by height and then alphabetically by author. Even when the girls were little, I had some books arranged by genre and then by author. So one section was mysteries, one section was "serious" fiction, one was humor, one was non-fiction. That is completely wiped out now--pretty much my organization is based on the principle of "where can I put this book so it won't fall out and hurt me."

I have dreams, of course, that I am going to go through and cull these books. My kids are in middle school--do I really need to keep the Eric Carle books? What about those books that I haven't ever read--am I certain that I won't read them?

But then I realize that if I have that kind of time, I could use it better by reading.


Anonymous said...

Keep the children's books -- your grandchildren will love them.

crossons said...

My shelves are a hodge podge - no rhyme or reason. The living room shelves might might contain books that are there because they are funky - "vintage" or art books. Books are grouped by author, and my favorites tend to be up in my room.

I'm totally in agreement that the time is better spent reading. As long as I never rearrange my books, or no one else does, I can always find them when I need them!