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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Why are bookshelves so attractive when we visit?

When you visit someone at their home and they show you around the house, it can happen that the bedroom door stays shut. A bedroom is, after all, a locus of intimacy and a refuge, a place where people find peace and privacy. But a bookshelf is a thing that is solidly in the public space within the home, although once I found that looking at someone's books - something we all like to do, it seems - was unwelcome. 

This was in space-deprived Japan, a place where privacy is decidedly at a premium, and we had gathered in her apartment for purposes quite other than to check out what books she had bought and kept. I had gone to the bathroom and then had lingered outside the toilet door to take in the names and titles on the books' spines, as I found them ensconced on miniature shelves there that had been stuck to the wall; she hurried down the hall and switched on a light as if to help me, but I felt as if I was intruding, and quickly returned to the gathering.

But books are enticing even when stored on a shelf, let alone read. We can be disappointed, as when the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, recently appeared in a promotional video seated in front of ranks of those inscrutable legal volumes you see in lawyers' offices; this pointed at the man's legal background, but let down bibliophile viewers because the titles and names were illegible, and anyway not of general interest. Much better for us was a video produced by the Institute of Public Affairs, an Australian think tank, where the representative of the organisation sat facing the camera with fully-stocked bookshelves right at his back. It made for good viewing for the curious.


Here are two of my bookshelves (click to expand). I have seven bookcases dotted around the place - as well as piles of books on the floor in one room - and there is no order to the arrangement, except in a couple of cases, so where the books sit, or what they sit next to, is purely arbitrary. This situation is less than optimal, obviously, because it means it can take me a while to find a book when I am looking for it. I always put off reordering the bookcases but it is something that I should do at some stage to make my life easier.

It has been said that books add character to a home. Certainly, I take a dim view of someone if I find that they own no books at all. But taking stock of a person's books definitely gives you an insight into their intellectual and cultural make-up, which is something that prospective partners, for example, can find to be of great relevance. Friends, we take as they come, but it's also likely that our friends will have the same kinds of tastes as we do. Their books, ranked side by side, can confirm this, or undermine the theory.

Of course, these days you don't need bookshelves in order to own books; electronic books can be stored in a number of devices. But I still prefer to read paper books. Not only are they impossible to delete - Amazon angered many recently when it deleted a book that had been downloaded many times, removing it from users' Kindles - but they are comfortingly inert. I spend a lot of my day sitting in front of the computer, and when I go to bed and pick up my current read, I like to run my eyes over lines printed on a physical object, and not lines displayed within a digitised simulacrum of a book.

1 comment:

Geoffrey Burrows said...

I also like the actual printed books more than electronic versions. It's the combination of touch, smell, little creases and folds, along with some sense of a lasting legacy. Even though an electronic version may have the content, I just don't enjoy reading it anywhere near as much as a printed version.

If I had to imagine someone investigating my book collection, and then building a picture of me in their mind, I think that they'd be a little disappointed to get to know me in person. My collection is more than a bunch of books; it's a framework of aspirations.