Betrayed by Your Bookshelves?

Manguel’s personal library from the NYT h/t Alan Jacobs

My library is not a single beast but a composite of many others, a fantastic animal made up of the several libraries built and then abandoned, over and over again, throughout my life. I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t have a library of some sort. The present one is a sort of multilayered autobiography, each book holding the moment in which I opened it for the first time. The scribbles on the margins, the occasional date on the flyleaf, the faded bus ticket marking a page for a reason today mysterious, all try to remind me of who I was then. For the most part, they fail. My memory is less interested in me than in my books, and I find it easier to remember the story read once than the young man who then read it. — Alberto Manguel

Isn’t this picture of Manguel’s collection gorgeous? I’m so jealous! And look, he even has Harry Potter on his shelves! (You can guess all you want what that might mean about him, but instead read this. It’s excellent. Manguel is a man after my own heart and I feel sure he and I would get on famously.)

For a while I had a page on this site where I had planned on posting pictures of readers’ bookshelves. Unfortunately, I haven’t received any photos and I decided to scrap the page to conserve space. That may change as more readers visit this site, though, or if I find a better theme. The voyeur in me really wants to see your photos!

Since I’m into my own library and books, I’m incurably curious about what others are reading and particularly what their own collections look like. When I visit someone’s home, that’s where I gravitate to: their books. I take note of their bookcases, whether shelves on milk crates, Billy configurations from IKEA, antique shelves, or contemporary and unconventional shelves. Then I peruse the collections. I can spend hours doing this, I must confess, though I have only been rude enough to do it at my sister’s house in England.

BBC News Magazine has an article today called “What Does Your Bookcase Say About You?” Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s had the idea of posting people’s personal library photos. I’m also not alone in being interested in other readers’ libraries, of course. Peter Sandico is a bibliophile who feels the same way I do. He has a theory, as well, about what our books say about us. While I wholeheartedly concur that books are an extension of the self, I can’t agree that I display my books because I want people to think a certain way about me (that never occurred to me!)—I display my books because I’m in love with them and enjoy being surrounded by them, and adore looking at them and browsing through them, and because I firmly believe that books make a room. I also agree that our books and the way we shelve them say things about us.

I display my books neatly; they line up nicely at the edge of the shelves. This might be from my Chapters or library days but I think I’ve always done it. It tells you that I like order and neatness, which is very true—er, in most cases. But I also have let go of the control a bit (as in life in general) and whereas I used to organize my books by nationality (Canadian, American, Indian, and so on, though children’s were just all together, and then even alphabetically), I’ve become more lax.

Generally, all the books an author has written are together, but otherwise I pretty much put the books where they fit best on the shelves. Sometimes I care about how they look beside each other; thus I have a bunch of beautiful fat novels together (Kristin Lavransdatter, Anna Karenina, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Historian, etc.). No matter what, though, my little library is completely for me. I feel so strongly about my books, my dear friends, that I couldn’t care less if anyone judges me or my choices negatively. I like what I like for me, not for anyone else—books are after all highly personal belongings—though I admit it is lovely when people compliment me on my collection. It makes me happy.

What do your bookshelves look like? Are they neat and organized or piled willy-nilly on top of each other? Do you have uniform shelves or mismatched ones? Do you put other things on your shelves besides books?

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11 Comments to “Betrayed by Your Bookshelves?”

  1. My books of fiction are organized alphabetically, however, I’ve started to become a bit more lax about it, mostly because I’ve run out of space. This also means that I’ve now begun to pile books on top of a row of books, which I hate, but with every new book I buy – what can I do? Then I have my art books together, and then my design books, then my theory based books, and my political/world issues books (Massey Lectures, etc.)and of course, my children’s books but some of those are in my art room, because I like to look at them for inspiration and “how to”.
    This morning on the ride to work, I started “Nikolski” and on reading the first sentence, felt my shoulders sigh with relief. After reading 3 pretty terrible books, I can finally rest in the presence of a good story – and good writing!

  2. P.S. After work yesterday, I went to the big Indigo at Bay and Bloor. You would have LOVED it. For some reason, they had more tables on display than usual, and more than usual, FILLED with all really good books! and mostly Canadian authors. It was really very difficult. And there were lots of books I wanted but were still in hard cover so I made myself wait – and there were a couple of display tables of big books on tea! And a whole table of Alice and Wonderland books and tea sets! And the whole place was hopping with people excited about books and talking about books. It was really quite excellent.

  3. I’m so glad you’re liking Nikolski! You will love it, trust me. It’s excellent.

    Indigo, eh? I haven’t been to one of those in eons. We have Chapters here, and I get the impression that they’re a little different. I did see the Alice in Wonderland tea sets at Chapters. The Cardew ones. I wish the teacups were actually teacups and not mugs! I have the pot and cake trays but no cups. I don’t like those cups they’re selling. And I got mine at Winners.

    That all sounded so awesome, the way you described Indigo, but made me feel funny. I don’t want these big stores doing what I want to do!! I’ve got all these ideas that I feel people are going to do 9wait! That’s MY idea!!) before I get to bring them to fruition. :(

    1. But Indigo and Chapters have an established reputation of being just another big chain, and there are lots of people who don’t like the ‘idea’ of them, (usually the kind of people who refuse to go to Starbucks). There is definitely a niche for small, local, independent stores right now, and I think that even if your ideas may be similar to theirs, they will always come out different in your store because you will represent a totally different kind of store. Does that make sense? People want intimacy, especially book lovers, and that’s what these big chains don’t have.

  4. It being a public holiday in Canberra, I was spending some time surfing the net and came across your great blog. I love the idea of readers posting photographs of their bookshelves as it provides us with a visual image of where people are coming from, and have been. Like you, I tend to gravitate towards peoples’ bookshelves when visiting someones’ home (frequently surreptitiously). Thankfully I have quite a few friends who are librarians and they don’t mind at all.

    My library is quite eclectic but features a wide selection of books concerning popular music and music-related fashion. I also love my penguins (orange and green) and cookbooks.

    1. Hi John,

      Happy holidays! We have one today, too: Thanksgiving Day.

      Funny you should comment on this post in particular; just yesterday I was thinking about it and about wanting people to submit photos of their shelves. I really get a kick out of seeing them, of getting to explore them. I scrutinize shelves even in magazine pictures. Just today I was reading a Brit home mag and noticed the people had two copies of a Nick Hornby novel, not beside each other but on adjacent shelves. I thought that interesting, since the other books were all different and the photo wasn’t being repeated or anything. Perhaps a couple amalgamated their books and they each had a copy that was meaningful to them? Who knows.

      Cookbooks are usually gorgeous and had I the money I’d spend lots on at least three I have in my sites at the bookstore where I work. And Penguins? Who doesn’t love those?

      1. Hi Steph,

        Thanks for the response.

        Your comment concerning amalgamation of book collections struck a chord ~ my cousin David, an Aussie rock musician (ex-Mental As Anything) has a great collection of popular music books that I would give my eye-teeth for. Despite our similar tastes we have few duplicates, and amalgamating the two collections would result in a fabulous assemblage of that genre.

        Concerning photographs of personal library collections, I intend to create a new post on my blogspot featuring some photographs of my collection. At least one person, besides myself, will find this of interest!


        1. I had a very treasured copy of The Hobbit, which I foolishly lent a high school friend of mine. I never saw it again, much to my deep grief. When my husband and I got together, I found that he possessed the same copy I had lost, only his is softcover. Even though there was a story behind the edition I had—in short, it was first read me by my grade 3 teacher in a cemetery next to the school and it was instantly my favourite book. The copy she read from belonged to the public library where my mom worked. Years later, when I was a teen, the book was discarded, and my mother brought it home to me. I still lament its loss (along with an amazing book on Broadway shows and actors of Gene Kelly’s time)—his copy was so similar and rare that I feel somewhat appeased, and it was so unlikely that I took it as a sign we were meant to be together! :)

          I’d like to see that post. Let me know when it’s up!


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