Undercover: Judging People by Their Books
by Beth Carswell
Of all – wait, I mean both – my faults, I am most aware of my nosiness. I love to know things, and delight in ferreting out information about people. Fortunately, this excludes celebrity gossip, so I haven’t become a vacuous bubblehead as yet. But I find ordinary, everyday folk fascinating, and love to know what they listen to, watch, eat, and especially read.
Books, and the books that people choose to read for pleasure, are an endless joy and fascination for me. One of my favourite things to do (occasionally surreptitiously but usually unabashedly) when I am in a new friend’s home for the first time is to peruse their bookshelves. Is it neat, orderly, and tidy? Does it consist largely of textbooks and career books? Is it stuffed to overflowing, books crammed here and there at various angles? Does he have rare and collectible books? Does she have a secret shelf of shame devoted to bad romance and old Sweet Valley High from her tween years? What’s on the nightstand? Which book looks to have been read the most?
It’s a joyful way to judge someone by the contents of their bookshelves, and I fear we’ll lose that, with e-readers becoming so prevalent. Sure, they have their benefits. E-readers make it feasible to carry many books at once, without breaking your back or bag. They’re tidy, efficient, and some technophiles love the look and feel of them. And as someone with mild hoarding tendencies, an e-reader is a tempting way to reduce clutter (though my entire being revolts at the idea of books as clutter).
But in 10 or five or even two years, when I enter a friend’s home for the first time, what might I find? Sure, most people will still have books. But many of their reading choices will be hidden away in the impersonal, pixelated depths of their reading device. And while I imagine it would be considered rude to pick up someone’s e-reader and start idly flicking through, it is perfectly acceptable to openly snoop by inching from one end of a shelf to the other, head cocked at an uncomfortable angle, glass of wine in hand. I love exclaiming when I find one of my favourites on their shelf. I love begging to borrow a book I’ve been dying to read for years. I love silently evaluating their choices and smiling smugly if I feel mine are better.
How can we weed out ill-advised love partners if their stacks of Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Dean Koontz aren’t on display? Should people be obliged to reveal it upfront if they indulge in Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins? How can we fall in love that much more quickly if we can’t see his amazing collection of noir and pulp in the hallway, or her extensive heap of Calvin & Hobbes? I imagine we’ll at least still be able to peruse each other’s cookbooks, since I can’t imagine a minestrone-splattered screen is good for an e-reader.
For me, books are part of my house, part of my decor, and part of who I am. When you come into my home (mind the clutter), I expect and welcome you to eye the shelves, laugh at some inclusions, ask about some inclusions (yes, I collect Roald Dahl, and have almost everything he ever wrote; yes, I have a surprising number of comics and graphic novels including all of Garth Ennis' Preacher and Neil Gaiman's Sandman; yes, I read all those zombie books, and my favorite of them was Max Brooks' World War Z which was very intelligent and detailed; yes, I am a woman in her 30s; no, I am not ashamed) and to pull down copies, admire my few cherished collectible books, borrow, discuss, argue – and yes, even draw conclusions.
Don’t worry. I’ll do the same to you.