Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox by Aliya Whiteley: Heads up, Spines Out

Heads up, Spines Out

I have a favourite bookcase; my father made it. On it I place my most beloved books. It sits in the living room, where I hope visitors will look through it and comment on my good taste, because I prefer talking about books to talking about anything else. I think you’d get a better idea of who I am by scanning that bookcase than by having a thirty minute conversation with me.

The authors on that bookcase include: Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Martin Amis, Frank Herbert, Iain M Banks, Rupert Thomson, Christopher Priest, Daphne Du Maurier, George Eliot, and DH Lawrence. Yes, that’s right – I’m a sneaky fantasist with literary pretensions and the secret wish to be carried off and made to work the fields in Nottinghamshire. It’s much easier if you surmise those facts about me right away, and leave my house if you prefer more straightforward people.

I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Not long ago a meme pinged around the literary blogs in which people posted up pictures of their beautiful bookshelves. When we spend all day thinking about the written word, the object of the book itself becomes important. We all know that we judge books by their covers, but we also judge them by their spines, and how they sit next to each other. I rearrange a lot. Some days all the Ian Flemings have to be in the right order. Other days Dr No has to sit next to Brighton Rock. I don’t understand why that is. It just is. What does that mean? That I have criminal tendencies but am hoping to get caught and interrogated by a handsome devil on a desert island? I have a theory that a personality test of astounding accuracy could be devised by evaluating the state of our bookshelves. For instance, omitting the obvious Freudian pointers regarding the size, shape and colour of the things (or how many you feel you need to have; what are you overcompensating for?), there’s so many other choices to be made. How about the hardback versus paperback debate?

Hardback – serious in nature, a collector, prone to making grandiose statements. Possibly works out to avoid arm strain.

Paperback – light-hearted, keen on long baths and beach holidays, might have spinal problems.

And then we get down to genres:

Non-fiction – honest, a probing intellect, not keen on fancy dress parties

Fantasy – long-winded if given the opportunity, a bit too keen on fancy dress parties

Crime – of a nervous disposition, or possibly not too bright and looking for new ways to get into mischief

Romance – eats a lot of chocolates and says, ‘aah’ when a puppy appears on the television

Literary – intelligent, forthright, emotionally honest. Prone to latching on to strangers at dinner parties and discussing childhood traumas.

Science Fiction – worried we’re all going to die

Philosophy – certain we’re all going to die

Well, maybe my definitions need a little work. And I have already spotted the fatal flaw in all of this; I could spend ten or twenty years perfecting my method only to find that it’s become obsolete. By 2030 the bookcase will be a very different being. I’m guessing it’ll fit into our hands and run on solar energy, storing tens of thousands of books without taking up the dark corners of our houses. We’ll have to place extra beanbags around the place or dust more.

Without piles of books hanging around the house, how will we personalise our space? We’re already losing the outlet of the CD rack, and the DVD stash. Somebody needs to invent a new way to project our consumer choices in the physical world. I’m thinking maybe a tee shirt that displays a carousel of book covers, or a holographic projection on the outside wall of your house. I think the ability to say – Hey! This is what I like! What do you like? is an important one. One that needs to be expressed both on and off-line. Even when we’re not telling the truth about what we like.

Because this is the other problem with my psychological test. Sometimes people aren’t exactly honest about their preferences. Okay, I admit it – I’m talking about me again. (Literary reader, with a predilection for Ian McEwan…) There are certain books that I don’t put out on my bookshelf, and I’m not just talking about the ones by Alex Comfort.

I like chocolate. I cry at puppies on television. Yes, I’m a closet romance reader. Not all the time, but when I’m feeling a bit low and it seems that Daniel Craig is never going to realise that I’m out here waiting for him (sorry Hubby) I pick up a Mills and Boon or six and escape to a world where millionaire Rock Stavropolous will demand that I marry him before we’ve even snogged. It makes me feel better, but I wouldn’t want to be reminded of my secret needs on a daily basis, or to have other people make value judgements about me based on those well-worn paperbacks (that reminds me; I must make an appointment with the acupuncturist later, after my bath.). So I keep them out of sight, in the bedroom cabinet. I’m not going to be projecting a cover of a lusty clinch on to my tee shirt any time soon.

Still, the decisions we make about what to show to people are just as interesting as the things we try to hide. The bookcase in the bedroom is a very different affair to the one in the living room, and that’s how it should be. So, for now, until the book becomes a thing of the past, you can browse my shelves and I’ll reveal what I want you to see. But the romance and the poetry remain private. Poetry – now that’s a subject I didn’t even get to touch upon. I’m a lover of poetry, particularly Dylan Thomas, WB Yeats, Walt Whitman and TS Eliot. That’s right: I’m a quarter-Welsh dreamer who rolls up her trouser legs and paddles in the sea whenever she gets the chance.

As long as nobody’s looking, of course.

Aliya Whiteley

Aliya Whiteley was born in North Devon in 1974, and now lives in Buckinghamshire with Hubby and small child. She’s currently studying for a Masters in Information and Library Management. She was the recipient of an Arts Council Escalator award and had her first two novels published by Macmillan New Writing. She also writes short stories, and keeps a blog with fellow brown-haired, left-handed writer Neil Ayres at

6 comments on “Thursday Soapbox by Aliya Whiteley: Heads up, Spines Out

  1. Melrose
    April 1, 2010

    Enjoyed this article, and your definitions, though you forgot to put “paperback” can be the sign of frugality! My sitting room is a shrine to neutrality – things I like but which don’t shout out “this is me”, and the books and items that identify who I am reside in the more “personal” upstairs areas of our home. Fiction is either up in the attic or squashed into the bottom of a wardrobe at the moment, awaiting the unanswered as yet question “should I take recycle these, or might I want to read them again”, poor things. I do have a core selection of books that I hold on to come hell or high water, mainly because of the authors, and I have been known to collect 2 or 3 of these same books, if I see them languishing in charity shops, unloved and unwanted!

  2. rosyb
    April 1, 2010

    Loved your definitions too. I’m not quite tidy or organised enough to think through what exact image I’m creating with my books. They just exist in a cascading slew all over the floor normally.

    I always have a lot of non-fiction in the bedroom though as it is what I find the most useful to read if I can’t sleep. And various more embarrassing things tend to crop up all over the place- normally when least expected. The main thing I want displayed are my art books. Because they are the kinds of things i just enjoy browsing through every now and again but because of their general unwieldiness they always end up high out of reach or packed in such a way that to remove one brings down the whole ediface.

    I’m definitely a paperback girl too. You can’t read a hardback in the bath and you feel more guilty if you drop it in.

  3. Jackie
    April 1, 2010

    Such a funny review, very witty! I was looking forward to this Soapbox & it didn’t disappoint.
    I have mostly hardback non-fiction, bought at discounts & library sales & arranged by topic on my shelves. My mother thinks arranging them by size would be much tidier. lol

  4. Lisa
    April 5, 2010

    Thanks so much for this Soapbox, Aliya. Really enjoyed it. I think the main thing my bookcase says about me at the moment is “hoarder with storage issues.” In order to create a bedroom for the sprog, I’ve had to reduce my ‘bookcase count’ from 3 to 1, resulting in a huge jumble of books stacked three deep. I really must get rid of some books, but how will I live without such gems as The Digital Photographer’s Handbook? Or A Pocket Star Atlas? The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable? And then there’s the five copies of To Kill A Mockingbird and various collections of The Lord of the Rings. Nope, I couldn’t possibly get rid of any of them. Which brings me back to hoarder. With storage issues.

  5. Pingback: Confessions of an inconsistent booklover « Vulpes Libris

  6. Pingback: One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » My book habit.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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