What does your home library say about you?

In Books on August 12, 2011 at 10:58 am

That is one raucous cocktail party of books. Ustinov won't shut up, Lovecraft's been into the mushrooms, and Winterson's flirting with Piercy.

What does your library look like? Is it well-organized? What’s the oldest book in your collection? Do you collect valuable books, or are you more of a “throwaway paperback” reader? How has your library grown (or shrunk) over the years, and what does it say about you?

In a follow-up to my “What Does Your Desktop Look Like?” post, I’m hoping to get some responses about your home libraries. I think that a person’s relationship with books says a lot about them, and I’d love for you to share that with everyone else. Is there something about your collection that you’re proud of? What is it, and why is it of value to you? Is it the sheer number of books you own? Does that make you a really literate hoarder? Or are you a minimalist, and a patron of the libraries?

So, just like last time:

Send an email to and attach the photo of your library, along with a story behind it. Try to keep the stories to 200 words or less. Next Friday, I’ll feature it in a Skeining blog post along with all the other contributions. If you prefer, I’ll stick to first names, or just “anonymous.”

I’m going to break my own rule and go over 200 words here, but a little bit about my library:

Anybody who has been to our apartment knows that books are the “fourth roommate” (Lucy does count as #3). Huge stacks of books have been with me for years now, and that will likely continue for years to come. They’re an immensely important part of my life, at times a burden, and at other times the greatest comfort I could ever imagine.

I own somewhere in the order of 750 books, not including magazines or journals. This may seem extreme to some, but in my defense, I did complete a PhD in English Literature, and must have collected at least 100 of those books during the study of my comprehensive and special fields exams alone. In this respect, I’m probably not much different than most academically-trained people: we valued the book before we started the process of higher learning – indeed, it was probably part of why we pursued it in the first place – and that education, by necessity, only increased our stores of bound paper.

But it isn’t just about volume: you don’t need to own as many books I do to “count” in this poll. My friend Darryl, a Professor of English, doesn’t own the most books of my friends. He does, however, possess a significant collection of highly rare and valuable books. (But he also is an Archie aficionado, so…well, we’ll let history be the judge of his taste.) Alice has put me — and our current city administrators — to shame by taking out an extraordinary number of books from city libraries this year, so despite the fact that she is out-reading me this year, her collection of owned books is relatively small.

Unlike Darryl, I would stop short of calling myself a bibliophile. I’m not particularly devoted to any particular genre or period, except perhaps science fiction and fantasy; even then, it’s a relationship marred by infidelity and frequent forays into non-fiction. By the same token, I’m hardly the most devoted accumulator of books. Now, 750 may seem like a lot of books, but I’ve been an avid reader since the age of about 6, and have been actively buying books in large numbers since around 1994: that’s about 44 books a year on average. (For some that may not diminish the absurdity of my “not a collector” claim, but when you consider that Alice has pledged to read 100 books this year – and is well on the way to meeting this target – it’s not unrealistic.)

My collection is disorganized and messy. Take a look at the photo above: it’s more about securing precious space than it is about sorting by genre or author. Poor Stephen Pinker is jammed in between the brooding pair of William Godwin and David Bergen; the only semblance of order is the “freak’s corner,” starting with Beckford’s Vathek, carrying through until Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. But these are just accidents: it’s a free-for-all on those shelves. Abandon all hope of order, all ye who enter here!

I will be honest and say this: I kind of like it that way. Once every five years, when I decide to organize everything, I lose the sense of discovery when perusing my shelves. (Yes, when you have this many books, you can still “discover” things.) If you look at my “organized” bookshelves, it looks like it’s been taken over by a science fiction and fantasy convention: I own far more trashy SF novels than books from any other genre, so they tend to outweigh, in visual terms at least, everything else. So I let them go “free range” amongst the other books, and that’s a far better deal for my reading pleasure: now, for example, you’ll find the tripods of H.G. Wells nestled comfortably between the garrulous Peter Ustinov and the demure Sheila Watson. I didn’t plan it that way: they just drifted there, cocktail-party style.

And what about your books? How do they socialize? Does this reflect on your own values as a reader or thinker? Send me a message with a photo, and I’ll share it with everyone else!


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