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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bookshelves 


Regular readers know that we are building a new house. Mrs. TigerHawk has graciously indulged my request that the house have a great many bookshelves to accomodate our great many books, most of which today are in boxes in the attic, on makeshift shelves with bricks and boards, or even in piles in corners. Yes, in the course of moving I will work up the courage to dispose of many books that I will neither read nor refer to, but we expect to live in the house a long time and it needs to be able to absorb the large number of books I buy every year because I am both affluent and insane. You see, I am not a bibliophile so much as a biblioloon. I basically cannot walk into a bookstore without buying something. I buy books because they look interesting and I fantasize about having time to read them, but am way too busy actually to read more than a fraction of them. Books are really my only consumerist frivolity (if you do not include the absurdly high household Starbucks budget, and in that there are other culpable parties), but there is no defending my "problem".

Anyway, I was highly entertained by this analysis of the linkage between the books one displays and one's self-image. One view, which I would call the "merit badge" theory, is that it is wrong to display books in the public spaces of one's house that one has not read. Proponents of this theory believe it is tantmount to claiming credit for work you have not done, or learning you do not have. Ezra Klein's very amusing response is that the books you display reflect how you want to be perceived; I would call this the "image" theory. Just as our clothes or cars or houses shape our identity, so do our books, or so the theory goes.

I will confess that years ago, when I was, well, Ezra's age, I subscribed to the image theory, at least insofar as I gave some thought to the books I would keep in the living room where guests would see them. No longer, though. Now my motives are purely practical -- to get them off the floor and out of other places where they are not books but "clutter," and to render them accessible for (the kids') term papers and (my) blogging and other writing. The real purpose of the home library, as opposed to the home big-pile-of-cartons-filled-with-books, is so that you can easily refer to the indexes.

CWCID: Glenn Reynolds.


13 Comments:

By Blogger Christopher Chambers, at Thu Feb 28, 09:39:00 AM:

In a way it is a matter of self-image. But it isn't vanity or snobbery. We live in a sad time of passive "news" ingestion (indeed even reading online doesn't stir the same "engagement" centers in the brain--my term--as reading from a book, or talking to another intelligent human), insipid entertainment, anti-intellectualism, marketing, the hype of social media webites...

Whew. People NEED to see your books displayed with pride. They are an asset just as your house, or money instruments; they are an acknowledgement of your humanity. I'd say they are the embodiment of we humans' greatest achievement.

Please...PLEASE don't tell me you are building a "McMansion" (with a carbon footprint that'll make Al Gore constipated and strain on the john) in some far-flung exurb...gated, less than two feet from the other McMansion and upon lots that were once quaint farms or some nice forest...  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Thu Feb 28, 10:11:00 AM:

*All* houses in the US are built upon lots that were once quaint farms or forest/grassland. Many of those forests were chopped down to create my huge supply of Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels which I have stashed in boxes and home-made bookshelves (also made of timber products) in my basement. As a good citizen, I strive daily to reach the heights of success of my role models, so that I too can build a modest house for my books (and wife too :)

By the way, what is this "Index" of which you speak? Unless it's little pieces of cardboard labelled "Anthony-Bujold", I don't have one.  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Thu Feb 28, 10:13:00 AM:

The biliohoarding genes run deep in our clan, TH. How I envy you your future shelves. My library lines both walls of our unfinished attic, every landing and hallway terminus, and wherever else I can shoehorn books. I find I am actually happier when I know where to find a book when I want it, even if I don't want it right now. Even some of those undergraduate anthropology of religion texts have their place, and there is much in my library that is not available in digital form on-line or comes from overseas and would be hard to replace.

Plus, books have insulating qualities, especially the way I cram them into shelves, and sequestering all that carbon has to count for something!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 28, 11:13:00 AM:

Whenever I visit a friend’s home for the first time, I generally take a few minutes to peruse the titles on display. I rarely see others do this, however. But examining the books, photographs and certificates, whether in a home or an office, is part and parcel of taking an interest in their owner, in my opinion. What is the etiquette of scrutinizing your host’s kitsch?

BTW, The collection in my own living room, is a mixture of history, biography and the Western Canon, reflecting my own fine taste, and the mysteries and spy thrillers that pollute Betterhalf’s mind. As a result our books are shelved two deep and stacked in chaos.

The more revealing part of my library is not the titles on the shelves, but those stacked beside my easy chair. The top three books of this stack are usually, top to bottom, the book I am presently reading, the book I interrupted to read the book that I am reading, and the book I interrupted to read the latter. The book second from the top of the stack doubles nicely as a surface for coffee or single malt.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Feb 28, 12:36:00 PM:

Pasquin, your description is exactingly close to our own present situation, except for the beverages -- beer, ale, or red wine in my case, or possibly a Diet Coke if it is too early in the day.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 28, 02:44:00 PM:

We're the same way - way more books than we've been able to have shelved in any previous house so finding/using anything has been a trial. The new house is built around a library of substantial size and I'm now finally getting the shelving installed, we should be able to finally have EVERYTHING in one place.

What we're doing for indexing is using a product called Readerware with a bar code scanner. Works like a champ for building up one's catalog.

I'm glad to see there are other people who are biblioloons. I was beginning to think we were the only ones.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 28, 03:14:00 PM:

My wife built my new bookshelves, and a new room to hold them, which I love. She told me the shelves are quarter something, riff-cut something, some kind of Oak. They're brown. The room has a refrigerator and a fireplace.

Anyway, she put some of my books up there. Many of the rest are piled next to my bed, or the chair I usually read in. Most of the rest of them are in some kit shelves I bought at Home Depot that line my attic walls (or, as my wife calls it, the "third floor"). I've slowly been retrieving many of the books off the new shelves because she put my Patrick Obrian books up there and whenever I finish reading some piece of history (my usual reading), I like to reread the Aubrey/Maturin series as a break. I confess, though, I really like my new shelves- they lend a certain tone to my paperbacks.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Thu Feb 28, 05:27:00 PM:

We used to collect books for image, I admit, but have been divesting ourselves of volumes for the last ten years. We simply needed much more space in order to have room for adoptive boys. It is surprisingly difficult to weed. We use a halfway system of moving books to the garage to be sent every June to the church yard sale. Sometime during the year we have to burrow through them to get ahold of a particular volume, but not so many as we feared.

Elderly bookloving friends have described how difficult it is to reduce the collection to less than 100, or even 30, when moving to smaller retirement quarters. It's a good exercise to start playing with that idea now.

Umberto Eco tends to keep books he will read, not has read, unless he plans to read it again.  

By Blogger Country Squire, at Thu Feb 28, 07:11:00 PM:

I think Cicero said it best - "A room without books is like a body without a soul." I have a very "soulful" home as do many commentators here. What continues to surprise me is the number of people I meet who seldom, if ever, open a book much less read one. They have never known the joys of a great book nor the passion/madness of collecting them.  

By Blogger Andrewdb, at Thu Feb 28, 11:17:00 PM:

Eco has it right. I feel selfish keeping the books I have already read - they should be passed on to some one else to enjoy (except for the British or Imperial Histories, or reference works).

You can't be too thin, too rich or have too many bookshelves.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Feb 29, 06:05:00 AM:

Chambers, it is the Green President that might become constipated, but he can help TH with a Green House similar to the Crawford White House. FatAl becomes orgasmic, not constipated, with the use of fossil fuel ,it allows him to sell more offsets and make more money.

And TH, no problem. Just use the shelves as you previously did your attic---storage space. That is a fact. SEW  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Feb 29, 03:00:00 PM:

"I would call the "merit badge" theory"

"I would call this the "image" theory"

I use something I call the "organizational theory."

(Also known as the "I don't give a shit what other people think" theory.)

For the handful of authors where I actually collect all of their books, I give them their own shelf. After that, they get sorted by genre; 'Action' books by themselves, 'Comedy', 'Sports', etc. My reference books have their own special bookcase and are organized by sub-genre.

On the subject, I would tend to take the side that displaying unread books (outside of some to-be-read section) is somewhat presumptuous. I always look over book collections when I'm visiting someone, but I also note whether or not the spines have been cracked.  

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