Friday, August 27, 2010

Bookshelf spies

by Rachel

While reading the New Yorker this week, I came across this article by Susan Orlean—author, blogger, and now self-confessed book snoop. While renting a house on Cape Cod, Orlean tries to get a sense of who the home owners are by analyzing their collection of books (and spices!), which made me wonder—how much can you tell from someone’s bookshelves (seriously, her article was simply charming, but I’d never publicly own up to snooping in a stranger’s home!).

If strangers were to come across my current book collection, I’m not sure how they’d analyze me. Most of the books in my apartment right now are gifts from friends or family (who all have very different taste; there’s a lot of self-help and chick-lit—go figure), with a few of my can’t-live-without favorites.

So, if strangers were to rent your home for the holidays, what conclusions do you think they’d draw from your own book collection?


  1. If someone were to investigate ALL the multitude of 7-foot high bookshelves in my house, there's only one conclusion they could draw: She's strange. Possibly with a multiple personality disordered mind. Or perhaps a collection of circus freaks lives here.

    There's a whole bookcase of classic literature, literary theory, and narratology. Another of religion and philosophy. Another of general fiction with some nonfiction mixed in. Upstairs, another couple shelves of great SF, Jayne Ann Krentz (in all her pseudonyms), Linda Howard, Charlaine Harris, etc., plus some modern literary fiction. And a couple sets of shelves (right across the room from the literary theory guys) on the paranormal, mixed with some VERY deep science, physics, history, stuff like that.

    Like I said: STRANGE.

    Somehow, I don't think those renters would be too likely to come back...

  2. I collect anything that feels like it might be useful or interesting for writing. Psychology case studies, a dozen or so books on the occult, witchcraft and demonology, a few more on different religions, history, and an encyclopedia of martyrs and saints. We've got books on sign language, superstition, sex (that word is giant on the spine, but it's mostly about worldwide traditions and laws relating to the subject) and a shelf of programming and computer networking. Husband has a full 7' tall by 3' wide bookshelf of rpg gaming books. Then there are the genre books we love with titles like "For Love of Evil" and "Soulless."

    Worse than that, I joked with friends the other day about how many terrorist watchlists I would be on if they check my browser history after I did a search to figure out what different types of explosions there would be and the different set ups for making things explode outward or inward.

    But for me, any judgement I'd make on other people's books would be based more on the number of books rather than the type. People with multiple bookshelves of books interest me more than people with nothing more than a small pile -- or worse, people with no books at all. Though I suppose I might be a little wary of anyone collecting only books by those authors spreading fear and hate. :)

  3. And so those reading the above comments -- don't get too worried about my browser search, it was for a short story I was working on. I have no interest in actually blowing anything up.

  4. They'd look at all the different books, histories, novels, essays, plays; books on art, nature, science, etc., and think: When this guy was young he should have decided what he wanted to study, he would have accomplished more. Probably true, but I love my books. Actually, what I find sad is when I walk into houses and they don't have any books. But I suppose they could have Kindles.

  5. Anyone snooping around my home would be flummoxed by the disparate titles appearing on my shelves. There are books by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku and Steven Hawking; and novels of all genres. Then, they'd discover the trove of books, owned, loved, and read voraciously by my late parents. It was they who sparked my loved of fiction, history, and books in general. That is also why I am a writer and editor.

  6. They'd probably tread warily after seeing titles like "Outside the Circles of Time, Nightside of Eden, The Dark Gods, The Devil And All His Works, The Occult, Beyond the Occult, The Strength To Dream, The Mind of the Murderer, (and) Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition."

  7. Satanist. Or Christian. Depends which shelf you look at first.

    Both are incorrect assumptions.

  8. I don't know if they would be confused or disturbed by the variety of books I have. Most likely it would bother them more that the drawers of the dresser in the guest room are filled with books. I ran out of bookshelves.


  9. As the fear that people are less readers these days and more digital, sadly, when guests drop by, I find them less the browsers of bookshelves and more so ready to expound on the latest movie seen.

    Having said that, as a mystery writer, and my wife as an editor for a foodie newsletter, our book shelves reflect our passions--and you are what you read: one bedroom consists of 2,000 cookbooks, one bedroom is our Wild Wild West bedroom with collections of Civil War books, and a Zane Grey collection (also a wall full of signed cowboy movie star photos); another bedroom is the Nantucket Room, full of course, of whaling books, Cape Cod stories, and a first edition 'Jaws'. One hallway bookshelf is signed 'completist' mystery collections of authors who I have personally met and have had present and past communications with: Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton, Dick Francis, Tony Hillerman, John Dunning, Michael Connelly, among others. Another hallway is of signed culinary mysteries; the den is our "Lord Nelson" room with ships, artwork, and books of the early sailing days of Master and Commanders. Even our exercise room is likewise shelved with our Research Books, including many tomes on "How to find an Agent"! My own office, writing area, consists of current signed mystery writers, with a book shelf on each wall, and framed signatures of authors and handwritten manuscript pages of the likes of Truman Capote, Theodore Dreiser and Ed McBain. People browse less at our house because they are overwhelmed and impacted that they have just enjoyed a museum tour. S.P. Grogan, author, Captain Cooked


  10. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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