Bookshelf and Self

Are there rules for what titles you are permitted to keep on your shelves? Scott McLemee thinks it's all rule of thumb.

February 27, 2008

“It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it.” So runs the “prime directive” for bookshelf etiquette, as issued by a blogger for Time magazine named Matt Selman. At The American Prospect a couple of weeks ago, Ezra Klein responded in terms that are no less categorical – though hardly more sensible, it seems to me.

“Bookshelves are not for displaying books you've read,” says Klein; “those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I am the type of person who is very interested in a history of the Reformation, but am not, as it happens, the type of person with the time to read 900 pages on the subject. More importantly, I am the type of person who amasses many books, on all sorts of subjects. I'm pretty sure that's what a bookshelf is there to prove. The reading of those books is entirely incidental. The question becomes how we'll project all of this when Kindles takes off and all our books are digital.”

There is bravery in such candor. The word “poseur” is still around, after all, even if the people who study consumer behavior, and try to channel it, have coined the kinder and gentler term “aspirational taste” for this sort of thing. David Brooks could probably get a best-selling analysis of the American middle class out of the contrast between Selman’s moralistic injunction and Klein’s jaunty expression of dandyism. Just throw in some references to the difference between Blue and Red states, and the thing writes itself.

But after a grueling weekend of trying to impose some order on my study, I’m struck, not by the contrast between Selman and Klein, but by the degree to which they share common assumptions. Those assumptions are foreign to my own experience; and so it proves impossible to extract from either of them any maxim applying to local circumstances.

Klein and Selman seem to share a belief that book ownership can, and indeed should, serve as a medium for displaying something important about yourself. They signify either what you already know or whom you would like to be -- and (this is the major point) they do so for someone else. By this logic, bookshelves are a medium of social interaction. As a format for the “performance of self,” they transform one’s books into a way of attaining, or at least claiming, status. Hence the need to come up with rules, however informal, for what is permissible.

All of which makes perfect sense if and only if you are not a total nerd. Which, all things considered, is a pretty big “if.” A very different set of principles is in effect if you are someone for whom reading itself actually counts as one of the primary forms of social interaction. It’s not that you don’t have “aspirational taste,” of a kind. But the aspiration plays itself out in a very different manner -- with different consequences for how your living space is organized.

My experience (which can’t be unique) is that some books end up accumulating out of a misguided attempt to win the approval of authors already well-entrenched on my shelves. A few years back, for example, Slavoj Zizek started to insist that I had to be familiar with the work of Alain Badiou – a French poststructuralist philosopher whose work I had never heard of, let alone read. Well, OK, sure. Thanks to some busy translators, Badiou volumes started crowding in, next to all the Zizek titles.

But in short order, Badiou lets it be known that I am expected to understand something about mathematical set theory -- and furthermore should come to appreciate one particular approach to formalizing the basic axioms. Chances are, that second part is just not going to happen. I am willing to try to learn to recognize a formalized axiom when I see one, but can promise no more, and even that much is probably pushing it. So, anyway, off to the nearby secondhand bookshop in search of a couple of introductory works. They are terrifying. The shelf in question is starting to turn into a neighborhood I am afraid to visit.

But that is not the real problem. Around here, the “prime directive” is that there should not be any books on the floor. If a marriage is its own little civilization, this is among the basic clauses in our social contract. Insofar as “aspiration” comes into play, I find it operating at the level of daydreams about replacing one of the closets or windows with another set of shelves.

Clothing and the outside world are much overrated, in my opinion, which does not carry very much weight in this particular case. Bookshelves are storage; that is all. The idea of using them for “display” seems cute and improbable.

The online conversation generated by Selman’s and Klein’s remarks has at times reflected a kind of guilt that no really bookish person would feel. For there are, it seems, people who feel stress about owning volumes they haven’t read. Evidently some of them believe a kind of statute of limitations is in effect. If you don’t expect to read something in, say, the next year, then, it is wrong to own it. And in many cases, their superegos have taken on the qualities of a really stern accountant -- coming up with estimates of what percentage of the books on their shelves they have, or haven’t, gotten around to reading. Guilt and anxiety reinforce one another.

All of this reminds me of a friend who, while in high school, got about a hundred pages into Atlas Shrugged and realized that she loathed both Ayn Rand’s prose and ideas. But she kept slogging through the book, as often as she could work up the will to do so, and finally finished it sometime around her junior year of college. Persistence is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue, and sometimes it is really not good for you.

Beyond any particular virtue is the wisdom to know when and how to keep it in check. Just as persistence can get warped into a vice, so can the urge to be exhaustive, or the impulse to follow up the leads indicated in every footnote. The latter impulse is dangerous, for it leads to misanthropy: A scholar’s seemingly authoritative citations will sometimes turn out to have been pilfered directly from someone else’s seemingly authoritative citations -- without any actual reading of the texts involved, since given that the mistakes are preserved intact. It can be a sad day for one’s sense of human nature to discover this.

If you are going to have a moralizing voice in your head, maybe it’s best for it to sound like Francis Bacon, whose essays from the beginning of the 17th century are so much more sermon-like than the ones by Montaigne he was imitating. But "Of Studies" seems like a reasoned statement by a man of the world. “Some books are to be tasted,” writes Bacon, “others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

Likewise for bookshelves. Many items there are staples. Others are ingredients that, like salt, are only good in combination with something else. Some things you keep around are healthy, if not very tasty, while a few might count as junk food. (A couple of scholarly presses are indeed known for their Pop-Tarts.) And it’s hardly a decent pantry if you don’t have a few impulse purchases you later regret, or gourmandizing experiments that didn’t quite pan out. No formal rule can determine what belongs on the shelf and what doesn’t. It is, finally, a matter of taste.


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