15 October 2012

When I walk into a friend's home for the first time, I usually find myself examining their bookshelf.

It's an addictive habbit: a bookshelf provides an intimate view into its owner's mind. At a glance, you can see academic interests, aspirations, guilty pleasures, practical projects and everything in between. While there are plenty of other places where you can get this sort of information about a person -- you can see my interests on my Facebook profile, for instance -- a bookshelf provides a unusual level of candidness and intimacy.

There are several reasons for this.

First, books -- real, physical books -- are heavy, bulky, and expensive. Owning a book is costly, and this makes it unlikely that people will own many books they do not care about. (In the 18 months since I left Bard, I have moved 4 times, and occasionally had to make difficult decisions about which books were worth keeping and which I should donate.) Bookshelves therefore tend to have a good signal-to-noise ratio; when you see a book on a bookshelf, you can be relatively confident that its presence is important.

Second, you can often make a guess at how important a book is to someone based on how old and well-read it is. The oldest, most well-read books I own are a collection of essays by Emerson and a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. If you were to look at my bookshelf, you might (correctly) guess that these books have been a great influence on me, and that I've repeatedly chosen to keep them with me.

Finally, unlike a Facebook page, people do not populate their bookshelves with an eye towards what they want others to see. On the contrary, people fill their bookshelves with things for themselves. By looking at a bookshelf, you're guaranteed to get an honest reflection of a person's mind -- more honest, at least, than a profile page.

This sense of authenticity is what makes bookshelves so interesting: they can show you a side of person that you never realized was there, something personal and almost private.

You can see contradictions and inner struggles; I had a classmate, a die-hard leftist, who owned well-read copies of works by Buckley, Hayek and Kissinger. They sat there, right on the shelf, between copies of No Logo and Manufacturing Consent, with no comment on the tension between their content and that of the other books. It was great; it made me realize, more than ever, that his political beliefs were sophisticated and qualified -- that they had survived a deep exploration of opposing arguments.

(Contradictions don't have to always be combative or ideological; they can be odd and humanizing as well. Seeing literary friends with the Twilight series in hardcover makes you feel embarrassed and maybe laugh a little, but you also feel like you know them better.)

You can also find small, quirky passions -- like a devotion to a particular author or genre of writing.

But best of all, you can see aspirations.

People often buy books aspirationally; wouldn't it be great if I had read everything by Faulkner? By looking at a bookshelf, you can see what a person aspires to. Do they love literature? Politics? Science fiction? Are they learning trying to improve their writing, or are they learning vegetarian cooking? You will rarely find a more direct comment on a person than the aspirations on their bookshelf.

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