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.

Confessions of an inconsistent booklover

Aliya Whiteley’s enjoyable soapbox, “Heads Up, Spines Out” triggered the same impulse in me which – I suspect – affected many of its readers.  I immediately looked at my own bookshelves and started wondering what they say about me: specifically, the motley collection of books housed in my living room (where I tend to work, due to a comfy sofa and bad habits).

The results are interesting.  From where I currently sit, I can see:

Several books by a theorist I consistently use and admire.
The various books in my field I use for reference.
A raft of literary detective novels by one particular writer.
The collected works of a novelist I especially love.
Two timeless children’s classics which are handily free of any Blyton-esque issues.
Various works of commercial and literary fiction which I greatly enjoy, and with which I have no (substantial) political quibbles.

So far, so good and straightforward when it comes to book ownership and display as self-expression.  Except that after that, it begins to fall apart somewhat:

Books by various people about whom I am terribly conflicted.
Most of the work of a beloved humorist who wrote at a time when particular words and attitudes were still OK.  (Not his fault.  But still.)
A collection of light and enjoyable commercial fiction books which actively espouse a set of social and economic values to which I object.
Some books in my field that are very good, but I disagree with something fundamental in the premise.
The filming diaries of an actor whose major role I loved, but whose public persona gets on my wick.

Hmm.  This is all looking somewhat less tidy.  And then we get to:

At least six books in my field I think are terrible, but I have to read them.
A memoir by a poet I can’t stand.
An incredibly unpleasant volume that sounded like an amusing curiosity before I actually read it.
Several really bad novels which also happen to espouse social and economic values to which I object.

Far from the face I would like to present to the world, certainly, but part of my library nonetheless.  To complicate matters further, I am currently listening to a favourite album by an artist who has made a career glamourising all sorts of things I would normally call a scourge on society.  Because it’s a working day and I don’t expect to go outside, I’m also wearing a T-shirt bought in a flush of enthusiasm at a rally in 2006, extolling the virtues of a political figure I still secretly love about 50% of the time and think is a horrible embarrassment the other 50%.  I would wear it out of the house, but I’d have to customise it with a list of the things about him that worry me.

In the face of Ms. Whiteley’s cheerful and confident run-down of books and their meanings, I’m beginning to feel a little shamefaced.  When it comes to my literary image, it seems I got dressed in the dark.

However, like Anna Wintour – someone I bet you never thought I would reference in a VL post – I think that matchy-matchy is definitely overrated.  Rather more predictably, I also have my doubts about the idea of books as a means of “projecting our consumer choices in the physical world,” as Ms. Whiteley put it.  I do see the very well-aimed irony, and I also see the basis for it in the natural human act of wearing, acquiring and displaying things that appeal to our sense of self, and which we think may make us appealing to others.  And yet, for me anyway, books are somehow different.  The element of conscious self-expression (branding, if you like) is only one small part of it.  A book – never mind an author, or a genre – is just too darn complicated and full of layers to be placed on the level of a slogan T-shirt or designer handbag.  And the relationships we have to the books on our shelves are just as complex.

Yes, what you read – and by extension, the books you acquire – say a lot about you.  A bookshelf can hold a whole history, starting with Ladybird readers and continuing through school and university set texts, formative reads, gifts from friends and family (sometimes successful, sometimes less so), impulse buys and much-treasured acquisitions.  And part of this history is in the books you outgrew, the books you disliked, the books that honed your sense of “why I don’t agree”; not to mention the books that surprised you.  In fact, perhaps those books are the most interesting of all: the books you love or value although they don’t sit with your self-image in the least.  You may choose to squirrel them away in the bedroom or the private bath, and that’s your prerogative.  But how many more interesting conversations could you have if you displayed them with pride?

This photo, entitled Libri-Books-4 by Twice25, is released under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation License“.

6 comments on “Confessions of an inconsistent booklover

  1. annebrooke
    May 8, 2010

    Fabulous article, Kirsty! Our bookshelves show the existence of several split personalities, and there are only two of us here! We have works of erotic fiction nestling nicely next to theological tomes, and everything else in between, and all getting on superbly, I must say 🙂

    As an aside, I’m always amused by the books people buy me as presents as compared to those I get for myself: one friend always buys me worthy travel books, and I’m an utter homebody at heart – I think she wants to widen my horizons; and another friend always used to get me books which he described as “waspish and difficult”, whereas as everyone knows I’m an utter soft-centred fluff-bucket …



  2. Nikki
    May 8, 2010

    Oh I’m glad I’m not the only one who took a look at her bookshelf after that post and thought, “Well, that’s not exactly clear…”

  3. Hilary
    May 9, 2010

    I am deeply ashamed of my bookshelves – as a librarian, I know that they should be in excellent order. As the inimitable Keith Richards (is there any limit to the wonderfulness of that man?) has recently said that he’s been tempted to learn the Dewey Decimal system so he can put his vast collection of books into some sort of order, I’m now feeing even more small and inadequate.

    My shelves are double banked, with heaps in front of them. Books disappear for months, nay, years, and I have been known to buy another copy (generally the signal for the first one to reappear). Former preoccupations disappear underneath or behind current obsessions.

    All in all, I think my bookshelves can only say one thing about me – I’m in the wrong profession.

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

  5. elizabethashworth
    May 14, 2010

    I have plans to buy a new (additional) bookcase and sort out the random piles of books that are scattered through the house. There are some strange choices in amongst them, some are even unread, and I often wonder if I should get rid of the ones that I don’t love or aren’t useful for reference. But when the time comes I cannot bear to part with them.

  6. Lynne
    May 18, 2010

    Hilary, be not ashamed. I’m a librarian, and my bookshelves look similar to yours. There’s a saying “Builders have the worst houses”, and librarians shouldn’t worry about their shelves at home.

    One of my favourite quotes about books is by Dorothy L Sayers in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Lord Peter Wimsey says
    “Books…are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ’em, then we grow out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development. “

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This entry was posted on May 8, 2010 by in Entries by Kirsty, Special Features, Thursday Soapbox and tagged , , , .



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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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