Judging the Reader by His Bookshelf

Anyone catch Geoff Nicholson’s piece in the New York Times about his bookshelves, and whether having books on display by Hitler and Ann Coulter makes him a target for FBI profiling or suggests that he’s a right-wing nut? It’s pretty amusing and insightful, though I did wonder if Nicholson’s wide-ranging collection ever ran into the practical limitations of a cramped New York apartment—and if so, did Hitler and Coulter make the cut?

For the first fifteen years of my post-college life, I was always lucky enough to have room for books in my studio and one-bedroom apartments. Granted, as an editor I could keep all of my “work” books in the office and not surrender shelf space at home, but even when my wife and I combined our collections, we had the space to keep everything on our shelves. We had some questionable things up there in terms of profiling (William Burroughs, Nietzsche, Marx) as well as taste (a really bad bio of Courtney Love), but like Nicholson I filed them under “curiosity, irony, guilty pleasure and the desire to understand the enemy (not to mention free review copies)”.

And then we had the baby. Almost overnight, well-organized bookcases gave way to unsightly piles on desks and dressers as the shelf space in Henry’s room was taken over by baby supplies. By the time Henry turned 18 months, we’d been reduced to one full bookcase in our bedroom and the upper halves of two cases in his room. With a heavy heart, we knew the time had come—we had to get rid of some books.

So, what got sent to Goodwill? First and foremost, paperbacks, especially novels, plus classics like Huck Finn we figured Henry would probably acquire at some point on his own. Some decisions were no-brainers (so long, Courtney!), some were heart wrenching (lots of college books). When it came to the controversial ones, they ended up as keepers, though for less-than-ideological reasons. Both the Burroughs and Nietzsche I’d had since high school, and as for Marx—well, is that really considered dangerous anymore?

However, now that I think about it, we also held onto Aleister Crowely and Helter Skelter—more high school reading—which taken together could put the FBI on notice… Well, let’s just hope the Feds read the part of Nicholson’s article about how a criminal’s reading list can’t explain or predict his actions!

8 Responses to Judging the Reader by His Bookshelf

  1. I think I’d be too lenient to be an FBI profiler. A couple books on a shelf like that, and I’d think the person just had some interest in the topic, or had acquired the book somewhere along the road of life, no big deal. I wouldn’t worry or really make much of a judgment unless there was at least a full shelf of the stuff.

    I recently got an e-reader, and am wondering how people will judge me by my bookshelf in the future. I’ll still buy some print, but eventually, many of the books I love I’ll only have bought in digital form, and what’s left on my shelf will be a mix of hardbound classics, lots of paperbacks, and, probably, more freebies. I may have to weed a bit not only for space (since my shelves are pretty full already, and it’s unlikely I’ll want to buy too many more if most of my reading is going to be on the Kindle from now on), but so the titles on my shelf are an accurate representation. Of course, if my tastes in literature change significantly, I may have to abandon the idea of the bookshelf-as-me altogether.

  2. Ian Bontems says:

    A lot of my old books got pushed up into our loft when the girls were born. We have since given some away to charity and it was so hard to decide which go the journey.

    The weird thing for us is that, even after giving away boxfuls, we now have more books than ever before. My daughters are onto their second bookcase already. It’s a good job I work in a library or we’d have wall to wall bookcases.

    Think I might have a Crowley and a Burroughs book up in the loft – no Courtney Love though.
    That is beyond the pale.

  3. Ciara says:

    all my pre 2005 books live in my old bedroom at my parents house. when i run out of space that’s where i retire other books to as well. however i don’t think i have anything a profiler would be interested in. though a therapist might like my collection of angsty books and poetry from my teens.

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  5. Kendra says:

    I would hope no one judges me by my Kindle shelf, which includes a lot of free books that are, well…let’s just say there’s a reason they were free (although to be fair I’ve come across a couple gems). My real shelves are being gradually taken over by books I’ve had to read for my political science courses – a lot of them are what are popularly considered questionable, or are commonly misinterpreted. Nietzsche, Machiavelli, etc. I can just barely remember what I thought of such books before I actually read them, and read them with an academic eye. There’s nothing like an academic eye to turn “dangerous” into “benign”!

  6. Phil says:

    I have about six bookcases worth of books double shelved into three of them, and with books resting horizontally above those and piled on top of the cases proper and even secreted under the living room coffee table and on the bed stand and under the bed. They range from Tolkien to Let’s Go Japan, from the Collected Yeats to The Rise of Christianity.

    Which is all well and good except for the fact that I move frequently, never staying in one city for more than a year or so, which has, up until recently, necessitated endless amounts of work to carry my library with me.

    A few years back I got so sick of the whole process that I selected 20 favorites to take with me and put all the others in storage while I relocated to Sydney for 10 months. Which is why my new Kindle is going to be my saving grace. I just can’t buy more print books, and even if I did, odds are I’d be forced to leave them behind when I move or travel. So now? Everything is digital, and I’m breathing easier for it.

    • Lynn says:

      Awww Phil!!! Not the same thing! It’s holding those books in your hands and looking at them on your shelves! I just spent thousands of dollars to ship my books back to Paris and seeing them on their shelves once again was worth every penny!!!

  7. John says:

    Have to say, I’m fascinated that a couple of you commented about your e-reader “shelves”, since those are generally assumed to be private–hence, the uptick in digital sales for romance novels now that no one has to be seen with their covers face out. (poor Fabio!) But while keeping the “dangerous” books on the Kindle should protect you when the FBI comes over for tea and a quick peek at your physical shelves, I’m sure they have some kind of insidious tracking program for your downloads–probably for blog comments, too…uh-oh, did I just hear a knock on the door?

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