The telling power of shelves


The first thing I do when I’m in someone home for the first time (or even not for the first time) is look at their bookshelves.  I can spend a long, long (probably a socially-unacceptably long) amount of time browsing the books they keep, display, and, presumably, love.  I think there is a tremendous amount we can learn from others by what books they have in their living rooms.

It’s connected to this belief, I think, that I love the rise of the shelfie.  I’ve shared a few of my own, recently and last summer (my Woolf and thesis section, and my poetry shelf).  I’ve captured the bookshelves at my parents’ house on the shore.  I have many, many more bookshelves to photograph and suspect I’ll keep doing that.  I’m often charmed by the random assortments of books that wind up together on a shelf.

Last year we had our first floor repainted and as part of that project I had to empty out our built-in bookcase and then reassemble it.  It was great fun to revisit all those books, and to decide who should sit next to whom on the shelf.  Ann Lamott next to Annie Dillard.  Classics all lined up together, their broken-in spines speaking of how carefully I read them way back in college.  A small section of anthologies I’ve had work published in.

I think often of the famous Cicero quote that  “a room without books is like a body without a soul.”  I agree entirely.  I read hard-copy books and always have, but I watch the world shifting slowly but irrevocably towards e-readers around me.  One of the primary questions I have about this is what will people put in their bookshelves, in a world without paper books?  Another quote comes to mind, this one Anna Quindlen’s: “I would be most content if my children grew up ot be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”  On this dimension I know I would please Quindlen greatly.  I come by it honestly: my childhood was spent tripping over stacks of books and to this day my father likes to crack that “home is where you keep the books.”  A fun family outing for us is a trip to a used bookstore.

For now, I’m sticking with paper.  And I’m still, endlessly fascinated by looking at bookshelves, in my house and in those of others.  What are some of your favorite bookshelves?


24 thoughts on “The telling power of shelves”

  1. I too love looking at people’s bookshelves! We have a crisis in our new house- no big walls downstairs! We looked for a new house for years that would be the right combo of space and in the right school district. When we found it, we had to jump, even though it lacked built ins or the right space to build them. I think about this often and am constantly trying to find a creative solution… I will solve this problem but for now our books are in bedrooms, the basement and covering every flat surface on the first floor in piles- not on shelves!

  2. I tried ebooks for a while, and I still use them when traveling, but I went back to the paper book. I just like the way it feels. Of course, I have themed bookshelves in my house. My favorites shelf, a Newberry shelf, a shelf just for Harry Potter, a shelf for writing books, and a Kentucky shelf with books about Kentucky and by Kentucky authors to remind me of the state that was our home for so long.

  3. Oh, kindred souls here. Love love love seeing what people have on their bookshelves. Love all my book group members’ shelves, which is a good sign. Went to a fundraiser for PPLM at John Kerry’s house and was delighted with what I found in his library–a grand tour of history and literature, bless his heart. He’s a serious reader! Am just this morning waiting for the movers to come with all the things that have been in storage all summer, including my most beloved books. Where to put them? A happy task.

  4. Ha! I am also guilty of perusing other’ shelves for what is probably far too long! But often it leads to me borrowing a great book or getting some kind of insight (not always good, either) about the books’ owner that I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on. I’m currently filling two new bookcases and the thought process that has gone into that seems to confound my husband, who’d probably throw them on willy nilly. The horror! Like Shannon, I have “themed” bookshelves and not all of them are in public view. Like my gardening books shelf–tucked away upstairs so that I don’t waste precious space on the shelves in the living room. I always love your shelfie IG posts so keep ’em coming!

  5. I absolutely love the built-in bookshelves I have in my family room – when we were looking for a house they were actually what sold me on the one we ended up buying. It took me hours to set them up to my exact satisfaction, and now I love looking at them and adding to them, and I especially love how my beloved volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy sit next to my childhood Judy Blume favorites, and how John Grisham keeps company with Harry Potter. That Anna Quindlen is one of my favorites, and I am pretty confident that I will stick with actual paper books until the day they’re no longer printed at all. No e-readers for me.

  6. So true! Do you also stare at your own shelves, wondering what visitors to your house think when they look at them? I sometimes put myself in the position of a new friend, coming to our house for the first time — and yup, those shelves say A LOT about who we are. (Also, Anna Quindlen and Anne Lamott are on the same shelf in my house. 🙂

  7. I’m paper all the way! I just convince my husband to build another built-in bookshelf for our house – this one in my office. I’m slowly being swallowed-up by books. I also check out other people’s shelves!

  8. People always laugh at the two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our living room. My husband and I have been married 10 years, yet still refuse to comingle our books. And it is abundantly clear which shelf is whose. One is filled with history and religion. The other is filled with classic fiction, a sprinkling of potpourri nonfiction, and cookbooks.

  9. Please don’t judge me by the books on the shelves of my living room if you come over. My most precious, telling books aren’t all there, because I also have a case in my meditation room, another in my office, and piles next to my bed — the closer you get to where I practice and rest, the more telling the books. xo

  10. I LOVE this and your shelfies:) My favorite bookshelf is in the kitchen. All my cookbooks (I have Clean like you but I banished it because I only stayed on it for 4 hours), all my yoga books, and my harry potter books (tattered now that Oliver takes them in his backpack). I also love my poetry shelves – crammed in with lego creations – and my memoirs (devotion and caroline knapp there too).

    more please!!

  11. It’s so true about shelves and what they tell us, about ourselves and about others. I do wonder what the shelves will look like in our kids’ homes one day!

  12. Your shelfie was my favorite IG post of yours yet, and it got me thinking & writing about what’s on my “writing inspiration shelf” these days. This post reminded me I leant out my Quindlen and never got it back. It’s a bittersweet feeling. If you ever saw my shelf, I’d tell you that a huge amount of gaps in my books are due to lending, then I’d ask if you saw anything you wanted to borrow. I almost hate it when my bookshelf is full because I feel like there are so many people who could benefit from reading the ones I loved enough to shelve. And I definitely won’t be switching to e-books any time soon. FYI, the used bookstore in Arlington is great (Book Rack on Medford St). I could spend all day there.

  13. I love that book store! Haven’t been in ages – you’re reminding me I need to go back. You’re so kind with the lending – I always fret about the books I love most and their coming home. But I do love the feeling of spreading something I love, in the form of books. xox

  14. I love that your Harry Potters are tattered. Awesome. I didn’t stay on Clean either … read it, but was unable to fully implement. And I love poetry and lego together. That is perfect. xox

  15. I love that – the closer you get to the heart of you, the more special and cherished the books. Marvelous. xox

  16. I’ll keep the shelfies coming if you send some too!! Interspersed with your glorious skies, of course. xoxo

  17. That is a happy task indeed. Our shelves were repainted last summer and repopulating them with my books was so much fun!

  18. Love the themes. I haven’t tried ebooks though can see that traveling would be where I would. Sitting at Logan right now with a heavy bag. xox

  19. Hmmm…. funky shaped bookshelves on the walls you do have? Strikes me as sort of a fun challenge (though of course stressful too)! xoxo

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