Your Home Libraries — Revealed!

In Books, Culture on August 19, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Lucy, gettin' her Norton Poetry on.

It’s here: the “What does your home library say about you?” reveal! Thank you to everyone who sent in pictures of their libraries and accompanying stories — I had a lot of fun assembling this post.I’ll let those who submitted do the talking, but before I do, I’d like to briefly mention the submissions that surprised me the most.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the call for submissions was an understanding of the different ways people thought about libraries, whether categorizing them, or even the nature of the collections themselves. To be honest, it didn’t occur to me when I posted the call that people might think of their collections as already being visible to the world.

For example, Moira uses an online tool to catalogue her books: “I don’t have any pics of my physical library, but all 972 of my books are meticulously catalogued online at LibraryThing, where you can peruse the covers in a satisfying fashion. I have 230 comics, a slew of knitting and quilting books, and a bizarre array of fiction.” You can see Moira’s amazing collection by clicking on the image below:

I did mention that my girlfriend Alice wasn’t much of a “collector,” per se, but that she was a frequent and enthusiastic user of the Toronto Library system. “I have a huge appreciation for Toronto’s Libraries,” she told me. “Especially with so many branches so close to where we live, it’s so easy to use. I don’t need to own the books when they’re practically next door to me already.” Alice is currently pursuing a goal of reading 100 books in 2011, and is using the Goodreads User Challenge to track her progress. You can follow her marathon reading action by clicking the picture below:

But on to the “physical” collections!

Up first is Ghislaine’s paperback extravaganza, which I originally thought was taking inspiration from the same place as my “organization,” but which turns out to have a mad logic all to itself:

Ghislaine: “I have my library “organized” into a three tier, double stacked, elitist class system.  The top shelf is reserved for French literature and feminist literature (I went through a phase in college, but still maintain every woman should read Marylin French’s “The Women’s Room” at least once, noticed my well thumbed copy), the second tier is for regular old literature, Canadian literature, and “books into film”. The bottom row contains my guilty paperback pleasures, mostly  thrillers and police procedurals.  The books hidden behind each row  are either embarassing (Suze Ormand — given to me by my Mom to help me  manage my money in university), or the cover is scary (Monkey Shines).”

From Paul, whose cat Milosz is clearly a fan of poetry. This beast “guards the vault” to some pretty heavy-hitters!

In addition to a pretty large collection stuffed in every corner of his house, Kit has some unique collector’s items on his shelves, and more than a little “inherited” material:

Kit: “So we’ve got a home office that’s got 4 IKEA Billy bookcases (with extensions), as well as two half ones. We just added, on the main floor, two more Billys with extensions, and there’s one in our girls’ room as well. There are about 10 more boxes of books in the crawl space in the basement, and we’ve got 8 boxes ready to go to the used bookstore. That’s not counting my office at work, which is chock full of more academic-y books and the CanLit and film books (since that’s the stuff that I represent at work). It’s out of control, right now, in large part because Aubrey’s dad just parted with his lifetime collection and gave it to us. Some of the stuff is pretty interesting. The pictures that I’ve attached here show the glass-fronted shelves that include many of the more valuable books that we’ve just added from him. These include an early signed Heinlein book, a lot of first printings of first editions from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and (holy crap) a couple of first editions of Dickens’ works (first time they were printed in book form, that is, rather than serialized).”

Kit (continued): “He also gave us a newspaper from the moon landing, and other sundry items. Our home library, otherwise, is a bit of a miscellany: many, many novels; books divided by genre (poetry, drama, philosophy, women’s studies / gender, Aboriginal studies, and more). It’s *just* been reorganized, so there aren’t currently any books lying atop the shelves or unsorted. That’ll last about a month or so, then it’s back to the mess. Oh, and in one of the basement boxes I do believe that we have a pretty much complete run of the early Hardy Boys books. And all of the L.M. Montgomery books too.

Geoff sent in this photo of some serious-business shelving units, which make me more than a little envious:

Geoff: “It’s probably not surprising that the son of English teachers would have a boatload of books, but in my particular case I inherited a huge pile of theirs when they downsized to a retirement condo. First thing I did in my own condo was to have the shelves installed; the collection now wraps around to the top shelves pictured empty on the left. Have I read all of these books (as I’m almost always asked)? Naturally not; a good library should hold the books you want to read, not just the tombstone trophies of the ones you already have read.”

Heather, a NYC lawyer who obviously has an orderly mind, sent in a photo of a library that is both organized-looking and far more aesthetically-pleasing than my own mess of paperbacks:

Heather: “A few of these books are leftover from childhood, high school, and college but most are more recent gifts and acquisitions. When I moved to NYC I found books are really inexpensive here. And I can usually get same-day free shipping. So… they’re almost too easy to collect. Also I have a friend who works in publishing and she gives me free books! I’m not sure how many there are in total but I know that twice in the last five years I’ve culled thirty or forty volumes and donated them to the local library. What’s left over is organized generally along these lines: (1) childhood favorites; (2) Dorothy Sayers; (3) Primo Levi and some poetry; (4) referency-type books; (5) hardcovers that only fit on the tallest shelf; (6) books I haven’t read yet; and (7) others, wedged in wherever they fit. The rest of the shelves are filled with pictures of family and “objets”, which are almost all gifts or little inheritances, and therefore special!

From Peter, a devotee of design and a book-maker himself:

Peter: “Around 2,000 books on shelves organized in a modified Dewey decimal system I created as a kid. There are also boxes of books (mainly old) that I use for “parts” while bookbinding. About 400 are slated for a cull (to where I have no idea). There are also hundreds of books that I had as a kid at my parents’ place, but they can be safely ignored for this purpose. Most were bought used and most have been read. The Trinity College Book Sale has made owning so many quite affordable. Some are there for reason about the book itself, such as blank books I’ve bound myself. There are collections of books relating to New Brunswick history and books that were published in NB. Also, there is a collection of early Penguin paperbacks. Although there are collections, they are mostly about the content. I’ve inherited books from a number of sources and this often presents a problem of what to do with them, hence the cull that is underway.

From Danielle, who is evidently far more practical (and a better long-term planner!) than most of my book-obsessed friends:

Danielle: “My library has changed a lot over the years. Have moved several times, I jettisoned many of my paperbacks to make moving easier, I have recently moved to an e-reader as well so I don’t have as many paperback or hardcover books around. What dominates the shelves at the moment are cookbooks, as I feel that those need to be tactile, and academic textbooks I can’t seem to let go of. I recently wrote my professional exams, so I am glad I kept most of those academic books! The library shifts around depending on what is important to me at the moment, so they go on the easy-access shelves. I do go through flurries of organization, and did once try to organize my cookbooks from largest to smallest, spine out. But, it didn’t last too long. On one shelf, I do have my long-term to reads. This includes a 900-page biography of the British Spy Agency MI5. That book holds a special meaning for me, because I had the opportunity to promote the declassification of MI5 records when I worked for the British Archives Services.

Piers, also a victim of frequent moves around the world, nonetheless manages to bring with him what he calls a “core” of books:

Piers: “A section of my current library chosen for its similarity to the photo Alex posted. It is not quite so higgledy-piggledy, but there is the same sort of mix: academic, especially poetry, at the top; miscellaneous, including journals, novels and some Latin texts in the middle; SF and fantasy at the bottom.  This is, I suppose, my fourth (or maybe fifth) library, each formed from the core of the previous one when I’ve moved cities. I still have most of library two (in boxes at my mum’s) and three (in a storage locker), and one day I may reunite them. At the moment, though I have about 300 books with me, perhaps two-thirds of them academic – the core of my working library – plus the miscellaneous books I’ve picked up along the way. While I’m not a collector, I do have a 1649 Latin edition of St. Augustine’s Confesiones. That’s by far the oldest and most expensive book that I own.

Melanie sent in a Jenga-like representation of her eclectic collection (though I have to find a way of getting that Alan Alda book at the bottom – seriously?):

Melanie: “My ‘library’ consists of books shelved in three rooms in my house: the living room, my bedroom, and the guest room. I’ve grabbed stuff from all three rooms to try to give a representation of what’s there. I’ve always loved to read and have had an inclination toward fantasy and science fiction since I was a little girl. I did go through a romance novel phase that pretty much coincided with the raging hormones of my teen years, but I’ve gotten rid of most of those, except Princess Daisy, which is a horridly written piece of smut, but I keep it for sentimental reasons. As you can see in the picture, we’ve got sci-fi, fantasy, Harry Potter, Spirituality and religion, celebrity autobiography, childhood stuff like Trixie Belden and The Bobbsey Twins, (which I haven’t read in years, but just can’t get rid of), erotica, classic literature and plays, and even a book on how the human brain reacts to music. I also noticed I have a surprising amount of Atwood, considering I’ve really only ever liked The Blind Assassin. Also not shown is my collection of Christopher Moore’s novels – I never appreciated comic fiction until I read him, and I love all his work minus two books. Everyone should read Fool. Seriously.

Last, but certainly not least, is a wonderful submission from Lindsay. She sent me a beautiful little story about her life with books, which I’m posting in full.

It’s terribly vain, but I’ve often thought of putting up a little sign on my bookshelf that says “There used to be more, but once upon a time, I gave all my books to my friends.”

It’s not quite as altruistic as it sounds, I was moving out west and only had room for a single box of books. It felt good at first, virtuous even, choosing my most favourite, precious books to lug across the country, then inviting all of my friends over to take whatever books they wanted – obscure poetry books I picked up at years of small press fairs, heaps of books from years of university English courses, ranging from too many copies of The Tempest to never-before-published-in-Canada Sri Lankan writers. Knowing that these bits of me were tucked away on the shelves of people I knew was comforting as I hauled my single box of books across the Prairies.

I’ve never been one of those people who pack light, always insisting on bringing hardcover books on hiking trips, or hauling a small library to Spain with me in the fear that I wouldn’t be able to find anything to read there, so I felt like I had accomplished something great, paring down my literary world. And who needs a dresser when you don’t have enough books to fill your picked-up-from-the-curb Ikea bookshelf?

Even with that single box of books, putting them on the shelf, in alphabetical order, a throwback to my days working at a bookstore, made my tiny room in Vancouver feel like it might be home.

When I moved back to Toronto after the rain did me in, my shelves were still pretty empty and it felt strange to be back in my hometown, without my years worth of books. I realized that all of those books told my story – the classes I had taken, the book fairs I had gone to, the biographies of dancers I had admired. I didn’t think I’d miss them, and for the most part, I didn’t, but every now and then when I was at a friend’s place, I’d scan the bookshelves and stuff my hands in my pockets to keep from taking back the books that were no longer mine.

It took awhile, but I find I don’t need to have a copy of everything I’ve read on my shelves the way I used to. Now, I can leave books at my mom’s place for her to read and not have that lingering feeling of wanting it back. The exchange of books feels more fluid. I also don’t have a million boxes of books to haul up and down stairs when I move.

Even with my much smaller library, I never feel moved into a place until my books are up in alphabetical order. On the top shelf, poetry and books I have work in, then fiction; cookbooks go together and crafty books go together, and then all the books I’ve used for research for the books I write get their own strange corner. It’s the shelf that traces the last few years of my life most accurately and I love its bizarre mash-up –  an Eaton’s cookbook, a coil-bound account of people with achromatopsia, an illustrated history of WWII, a swimming guide from the 1950s…

  1. Thanks for this one, Alex. It makes me feel like less of a nut for the sheer volume of books that I own …

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