Others’ Bookshelves

I mentioned a little while ago that I bought this book while we were out in Colorado.

Leah Price’s introduction  –a fascinating essay in itself — points to “our curiosity about what friends and strangers read.”  Price recalls that “as a teenaged babysitter, [she] went straight for the books.”  I also adopted this habit early in my own teenaged babysitting career.  I can remember reading The Doctors Book of Home Remedies over a series of evenings in one family’s living room after their son went to bed.  I vaguely recall being advised to use lemon juice for a range of remedies, but nothing more about the book, aside from the sense of visiting in someone else’s world.  The borrowed book somehow carries with it not only the world the book creates, but also the world of the person who owns it.  (This sense seems to be particularly acute when the book has been pilfered off their bookshelf.)

Since then, I’ve enjoyed perusing the titles in many other bookcases.  I often revisit the books on my friends S.’s, and J.’s bookcases, and when we stay at each other’s houses my friend L. and I seldom read the books we’ve brought with us, instead plucking books from each other’s bookshelves.  I read Amy Sedaris’s I Like You one sunshiny weekend at L.’s place in Boston, and on her recent visit, I woke up early to find her curled up in a corner of my couch with my Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver.

Once, at an exceptionally good B&B, I combed through an ancient collection in an alcove of my bedroom before deciding to stay up all night reading a pleasantly aged Perry Mason.  My great-aunt and uncle’s bookcases were my favorite though, particularly the built-ins near the fireplace in their lakehouse, where my well-read second cousins deposited their books for decades.

There is something inherently fascinating about what others read and collect on their bookcases.  The books themselves are part of the allure — idiosyncratically curated as they are, particular volumes sometimes suggest themselves to you in new ways.  But it’s also because the assortment and range of the books is revealing — of the breadth and complexity of of the people we know — of the large and varied possibility of any individual human nature.

Price’s introduction provides an absorbing historical glimpse into the (apparently age-old) tensions about reading, collecting, and displaying books.  “Bookshelves reveal at once our most private selves and our most public personae,” Price writes, and her introduction parses that dual role beautifully.

Each chapter of her book couples lovely, full-page photographs of writers’ bookshelves with revealing interviews about their reading and their book owning habits, histories, and approaches.  Two of my favorite chapters featured Junot Diaz and Alison Bechdel, but the entire volume, in satiating our curiosity about what others read, offers interesting and valuable insight.


4 thoughts on “Others’ Bookshelves

  1. That’s so true…looking at another person’s bookshelves is a great way to gain insight into that person. I also like peering at the bookshelves when I’m visiting a historic home — it’s a quick window into the characters of the people who lived there.

  2. Pingback: Bookshopping: Strand Books | Starlit Nights

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