html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: What a strange thought.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

What a strange thought.

There's something or other going around blogland about using your bookshelves to impress people. Everything about that idea is so wrong that I hardly know where to start.

My bookshelves? My bookshelves are vast and impressive indeed. So vast that I can not contain them in my house. Instead, I have had built several buildings around this city that are full of nothing but books for me. I have so many books in these buildings that I also retain a staff to take care of them and fetch me books at my whim. This is lovely. I send them a quick note through the internets and they promptly inform me that my book is at the closest of my buildings. My people remember my name and greet me as I enter; they have also set out about the building very many other of my books, in case I feel like browsing on this visit. They change those books frequently. They are so attentive to my needs. I love them.

I suppose that my huge collection is impressive, to those that are impressed by quantity. But out of my innate generosity, I let other people also read my books. Sometimes I see these other people in my buildings and smile to myself, thinking how happy they look with the crumbs that fall from my table. Enjoy yourselves, little people, with literature! Better your minds with my books!

When you look at bookcases, you are deciding whether to be impressed? Really? You are not looking hungrily at the unread ones, trying to memorize titles and wondering if it would be rude to your host to take one over to that sunny spot and ignore her all afternoon? It would never occur to me to be self-conscious about my bookshelf. Do you have any idea how many books I read? And how small a slice of them end up on my shelves permanently? Any particular collection of books is going to leave out the rest, some of which were light entertainment and some of which were hefty and thoughtful. I used to be self-conscious about reading so much, because I got made fun of for that. But I am not self-conscious about which books I read. They're just books! Next week's will be different!

People want their bookshelves to impress people? Why? Impressing people is just about the last thing I want to do. Impressing people is what happens by accident, if I let it slip about the graduate degrees or get provoked into a detailed rant or explanation. Up until I impress people, they're friendly and casual and open and tell me things. We chat along and I have what I want, which is to hear what people think. Once people are impressed, they get weird and start monitoring themselves or deferring to me, which does not get me the interactions I want. There are a few people who, once impressed, drop their filters and give me freer, more technical and astute conversations. But most people are less free, less forthcoming after being impressed. I am constantly on guard against that. Why on earth would I want my bookshelf to make the problem worse?


Blogger Bobby said...

I don't know, I though these bookshelves were pretty impressive.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Oooh. Those are awesome. 'Cept that creepy-ass doll.

7:52 PM  
Blogger bobvis said...

I don't think my bookshelves do me that much justice. All my read books are graciously housed by my parents. Some of my favorites are loaned to friends or were borrowed from branches of Megan's collection housed in other states. In a way, my bookshelf at my apartment has the books that were the *least* interesting to me because otherwise I would have read them by now and taken them back to my parents.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having moved a bit in the last couple years, I try to have as few books as possible. Read them, then leave them on the subway with a "Read Me" sticky on the front.

All I keep are ones that really resonate, like _Tools_of_the_Trade_ by Jeff Taylor or _Blues_, by John Hersey, or ones that are great but would be hard to replace or find at the library, like _California_Currents_, by Marie de Santis.

I do keep technical books, because they are hard to get at public libraries, and expensive.

A friend of mine, with many, many books organizes them by size. I've adopted that approach with few that are left. It's a tidy look.


9:23 PM  
Blogger Strange Bird said...

If I ever have impressive bookshelves, it will be because the structures themselves are impressive and because I would have built them myself. I used to care what was *in* them because it reminded me of when I had the time to devote to being well-read, but I've moved so many times in the last few years that I don't really care about being reminded if it saves me a few hundred pounds of boxes.

I do have all my Tolkeins still, though. I am too much of a nerd to ever part with a single one. Tolstoy, be damned! I want hobbits!

10:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Impressive or interesting? It's not always appropriate to bring up books you've found engaging or interesting in chatting. On the other hand, I (and readers) have fun thinking and reading about these topics and types of literature. Having your favorite books on a bookshelf do well to signal your interests. I'm sure it can get too pretentious--I know a grad student with yeah, a whole wall full of books. That's probably too much.

The biggest reason I buy books nowadays [sitting unread: Hyperion, Audacity of Hope, The Satanic Verses] is because 1) it takes me forever to finish them 2) if I spend money on them it's a commitment to read them (like buying a gym membership, or paying for yoga classes instead of getting them free at University).


10:13 AM  
Blogger KingM said...

God, I love how clever that last rant is. You tell us how you hate to impress people while simultaneously bragging about how impressive you are. If you weren't so damned impressive, you wouldn't have to work so hard to hide it.

This might be tongue-in-cheek, but only slightly. :)

11:07 AM  
Blogger SEK said...

When you look at bookcases, you are deciding whether to be impressed? Really?

Not deciding, but I am frequently impressed by other people's bookshelves. Who isn't impressed when they see the peppy, pro-sex feminist owns row after row of dreary Austrian and German literature. (The Man Without Qualities? But you said no men have qualities!?!)

11:50 AM  
Blogger Riz said...

After reading this post, I thought I'd look to my bookshelf to see what it contains. There is just one book, Don Quixote. Being an easily amused and forgetful idiot, I could happily read this every year. I used to own over a hundred books, but had to give them all away. Each night, this collection of unread books mocked me from afar: 'the idiot has us in his grasp but he watches CSI and House instead of true culture.' They had to go. And mock someone else.

If I thought of the public library as my own bookshelf, I would have a mental breakdown.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous scottb said...

Two things. First, for A4, you should try You leave the book with a book crossing sticker, then it gets picked up and read and registered, and you can follow your book (the exact one you read!!) through multiple owners. And it encourages whoever picks up your book to drop it again when they are done. How cool is that?

Second, on bookshelves being cool, I'm remembering an old op-ed piece by some mom who was trying to get her son to sleep, but he stayed up under the covers to finish a book. She couldn't really yell at him for that, of course, and her comment was "I want to raise someone whose idea of redecorating is buying a new bookcase.".

Books are wealth of a particular kind and while libraries are great, and I'm not looking for ostentatious displays of books, I enjoy books. The feel of them. The cleverness and wisdom in them. And having them right where I am is convenient. Especially when it is stuff the library won't have. Even though moving sucks.

4:30 PM  

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