Other people’s bookshelves

Other people’s bookshelves

other peoples bookshelves

Count on this: if you invite me to your home, I’m going to peruse your bookshelves.

(I’d like to think it’s not as creepy as stealthily checking out your medicine cabinet when you’re not looking. Your books are in your living room, after all.)

Despite my interest in personality profiles, I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you based on your books. But I am looking for common ground: I’m delighted to see a book I love on someone else’s shelves, or a book I’ve been wanting to read for ages, or–more and more often these days–a book written by a friend.

Sometimes I’ll spy a book I abhor, and depending on how well we’re getting along, I may even point out the book and tell you how much I hated it, and why. (Many delightfully nerdy conversations start this way.)

Sometimes I’ll notice that you have a particularly dense collection of my favorites, along with a handful of titles I’ve never heard of. Since we’re clearly kindred spirits, you better believe I’ll be quizzing you on the books I’ve never heard of and jotting down notes for my next trip to the bookstore or library.

If I feel like we’ve established enough common ground–and if I think you have primo literary taste–I may even ask your permission to snap a picture of your bookshelf to save myself the time of jotting down all the titles. Like this:

other peoples bookshelves collage

Confession: my own bookshelves are a wreck. I tend to pile my favorite books in my bedroom, where I do most of my reading, or force them upon friends, saying, you have got to read this. My bookshelves are constantly being jumbled and rearranged as I look for old books and cram in new ones.

But I will say the cookbook collection that graces my living room bookshelves is intact, and lovely to look at.

Do you check out other people’s bookshelves? Do you try to be sneaky about it, or not? Share your thoughts and personal stories in comments.  

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87 comments

  1. Jillian Kay says:

    Hm, now I’m wondering if I should get more of my books out in the open. I sold a lot a few years back to make space, and the well loved ones I kept are all tucked back in the guest room.

  2. Anna says:

    I totally do this too. I can tell a lot about my compatibility with someone by what is on their bookshelves – or the fact that they don’t have any bookshelves (horrors)! I like to use my books as decoration, plus I’m a librarian, so they are kept pretty neat, although my very orderly sister gets twitchy when looking at my shelves because I like to turn books on their sides and diagonal and stacked on top. It’s a loose sort of organization. The one thing that boggles my mind is people who organize their books exclusively by the color of the book jacket. The only ones I do like that are my shelf of cookbooks. Everything else is by subject matter or author.

    • Moira says:

      Organizing by color drives me nuts too! I consider books to be the best kind of decoration, but I’m a librarian too so I need them to be organized by either subject or author. My husband makes fun of me but secretly loves being able to find things in our rather massive collection. The craziest I get is stacking books horizontal though 🙂 I’ll have to try turning them diagonally-I bet it looks really cool!

    • Kimberly says:

      My youngest kids do some organization by color for their own books in their own rooms. When they’re really little they find it easier to find a book when they remember what color the cover is. They can go to the right spot on the shelf to being looking, after color they go for size of the book. It makes for a quick find, but it drives me batty. So, the books that are “public” are by subject (non-fiction) or author (fiction).

  3. Alison says:

    I also judge people by their books—and it’s kind of a shame that with Kindles and Nooks we don’t get to see as much of people’s selections anymore! Anyway, this post begs the questions: When will you post a list of “books you abhor?”;)

  4. Amy E Patton says:

    Our basement flooded last spring. I lost several shelves of books from my childhood as well as my kids. The basement dry wall just got repaired last week so I have been busy reclaiming my office upstairs where all the basement junk has lived for the past several months as well as my bookshelves. I had so much fun rearranging all my books and dreaming of all the new ones I want to add. My point: my bookshelves are the single best reflection of me in our house. Enjoyed your post, Amy
    (By the way- I love the idea of a link up)

    • Amanda R says:

      i’m casually reading the comments, snuggling with an infant in my lap (hello, sleep-deprivation!) and was shocked at reading you had lost your kids in a flood. After a re-read of your sentence I had to giggle at myself. So sorry you lost some childhood favorites, but grateful you all survived!

      • Amy E Patton says:

        Oh my! Too funny! This is why I shouldn’t be commenting on blogs on my iPad while lying in bed. Yes, my kids are good. There books on the other hand are lost. Enjoy your snuggle time. Amy

  5. jane says:

    LOVE this post! I love checking out other people’s book shelves and in fact I often find myself tilting my head sideways to read book titles – I even do it on blog posts, or on instagram pictures, or when I am looking at a magazine shoot of someone’s apartment – the first thing I do is try and read the book titles – gosh, that sounds very geeky 🙂

    There are so many posts now in my head that could spin off from this one, like “how do you feel about borrowing and lending books” etc.

    We moved to Spain 12 years ago and we had 68 boxes shipped (60 of those boxes were books)! After years of being a real book collector, I am now trying to reduce my collection for the sake of simplicity/reducing clutter – we live in a small apartment, so there is only so much room to expand. I have given tons of books to our local library – they are delighted to get English language books. And now if anyone wants to borrow a book that I have already read and know I won’t read or reference again, I tell them just to keep it and then pass it on to someone else when they’re done – people often seem relieved when I say that – I guess it takes the pressure off to read the book quickly and return it.

  6. Tuija says:

    Of course I look at other people’s bookshelves, for pretty much the same reasons as you mentioned, Anne.
    As for us – the word to describe our home decoration style is ‘bookshelves’. They’re all over the living room, but there are also bookshelves in our kitchen and our bedroom. You can’t help seeing our books if you come to our home…
    However, it’s not very easy to draw conclusions on my interests just from seeing our bookshelves, since a lot of the books belong to my husband and also a lot of what I read comes from the public library and goes back there eventually. Yet, I guess there would be plenty of lively conversation starters on our shelves…

  7. Jessica says:

    Yep – I totally do this. I really enjoyed looking at strangers books when we were at house showings. Maybe a little weird of me. But I think I was trying to pick up on the vibe of the people living there and how we may or may not work in that same space…. It really doesn’t make much sense since those people were getting rid of that space – maybe they hated it? Anyhow. I’ve also asked close friends if I can peruse their ebook readers. Like very close friends. I also ask them what apps they have on their phone or where they bought that great outfit. I guess I like to pry a little bit :). Lastly, before small children we had a wall of bookshelves, fill with books. It was our martial merging of books. Most of those books have now been donated or sold and the shelves are in our closets holding toys, office supplies, and our smaller curated book collection.

  8. Katie says:

    Oh YES. I do this to others, and I so very much want people to look at my own shelves so we can be friends.

    Every time my parents visit, my dad peruses my shelves and almost always ends up picking out a book to read during his stay. Which, since he’s the one who instilled such a love of reading in me in the first place, always seems high praise.

    Dad was in the Navy and since the Navy pays to move you all around the world, he never got rid of a book. Ever. There were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves all over our house, packed with trade book-of-the-month science fiction paperbacks and antique Bibles and everything else he and Mom collected over the years together living around the world. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve inherited his bookish packrat habit, and after only five years of marriage, our house is overflowing with books.

    Let’s see. In the public areas of our house, you would see books on parenting, gardening, dogs, rabbits, sociology, politics, theology, science. A Bible collection and a half shelf of nothing but hymnals. A shelf and a half all in German. All of my college books, which since I majored in English and German with a history minor, is a lot of classic literature and nonfiction, especially about China. Most of the DH’s books from his own studies (psychology and law). A pile of Norton anthologies and a good eclectic collection of modern literary fiction. Several very pretty shelves of law reference books that look gorgeous but are never used, because, Internet. But they make DH feel like a Real Lawyer. Oh, and of course, the cookbooks.

    The guest room has all our kids’/young adult books, except for the ones that have migrated to the nursery and family room, of course. The master bedroom has my sci fi and fantasy collection, plus a giant pile of half-read/to-be-read books on the nightstand. There are miscellaneous books on the shelves in the office…now that we have floating bath books in the bathroom for the baby, I think the craft room might be the only room in the house without books, and that only because I am never going to show anyone my appalling notebooks filled with teenaged novel-writing attempts which are stored there, so I don’t think they count. 😉

    The linkup sounds like a great idea, though I’m depressed because I just had to dismantle two whole shelves (including all the German books) because Destructor Toddler has discovered the pleasure of pulling books off the shelf and ripping them up.

    • Karlyne says:

      Katie, you sound like a book-lover after my own heart! And, don’t worry, if Destructor Toddler likes to rip books now, he’ll probably learn to eat them later and digest them fully!

    • Amanda R says:

      Katie, do you listen to podcasts at all? Grammar Girl just did a podcast on because-nouns, which you used perfectly in your reply to this blog post. I only mention this because it seems like I’m seeing them everywhere lately, and I really want to point them out to everyone. Sadly, most people don’t care. I thought you might, because, English major. 🙂 It was a fascinating short history of the usage of the because noun. If I can find it real quick, I’ll link to it, otherwise, look up Grammar Girl podcast, and you should be able to find it. The particular one I listened to was within the past few weeks. – Amanda (link: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/because-as-a-preposition )

  9. I’m late to the party here, but I definitely peruse others’ bookshelves and I love it when people come over and look at mine. We have 7 bookshelves and a book table in our 2-bedroom apartment – so our decorating style is also “bookshelves,” as Tuija said above. I can’t wait to see everyone’s shelves in the linkup!

  10. Erin says:

    I love looking through other people’s books. I always want to grab one and start reading, so I have to limit my looking or I won’t spend time with my people.

  11. Bruce Nuffer says:

    Discovered this blog when reading the one about my friend Shawn Smucker’s bookshelf. I have been thinking A LOT about my own books in he last year. I have a graduate degree in literature, and have spent the past 20 years in the publishing industry. I recently began asking myself what would become of my books when I die. I realized that my children will have already taken the ones they want, and that what’s left (which is most of them) will either end up in the trash, or given to some random book sale or something. So, with great difficulty, I decided to start giving away all of my books. I took a video of a few shelves and posted in on Facebook. I invited my friends to choose as many as they wanted. In this manner, I am ensuring that people who want them are getting my books. Some friends even began asking me to surprise them with books I have selected just for them. What began as a very difficult decision has become a hobby that fills me with so much joy I can’t even explain it. To share with friends who appreciate it the titles that have helped make me who I am–I can think of very few things in life that achieve that. So, here’s my invitation to you fellow readers–IF YOU LIVE IN KANSAS CITY, OR ARE PASSING THROUGH, CONTACT ME AND TAKE ALL THE BOOKS YOU WANT FROM MY COLLECTION!

  12. Leslie L. says:

    I ALWAYS look at other people’s bookshelves and I’m fascinated by what they read. Sometimes I get so engrossed by what’s on their shelves that I don’t want to socialize with the other people in the room–I just want to pull a book off the shelf and get cozy. I think there is something wrong with me when that happens. I also feel disappointed when people come to my house and don’t look at my books. I want them to say, “Oh, wow–so you’ve read…” and then we have a brilliant discussion about the book. (By brilliant, I don’t mean super deep and cerebral–just that wonderful feeling you get when you connect with someone who loves what you love and you both want to share the love.) Maybe I’m not strange; maybe I’ve just invited the wrong people to my house.

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