Tuesday, 15 February 2011


I read an interesting piece about what our personal libraries say about us. It shouldn't be a surprise that collections indicate a cultural context: the first thing I do in a stranger's house is go through their bookshelves and music collection. If there isn't one… oh dear. If it's hidden away, that's fairly suspicious. Reams of anthologies tell us that the core is an English degree curriculum. Flashes of orange-spined Penguins imply diligent trawls through second-hand bookshops or an eye for design. Virago apples tell us we're being entertained by someone with feminist tendencies, whereas a full set of Wodehouse indicates a nostalgic desire for cossetting and carefree luxury (I possess lots of all these categories by the way: my collection indicates nothing more than bibliomania, though the poetry section is sadly lacking, not that I have an internal critic telling me I'm a moron at all).

How are books arranged? Mine are boringly alphabetical, without separation for genre - Mark's library is organised professionally using the Dewey Decimal system. Actually, my unread books are organised by novels/non-fiction/poetry/drama/biography/autobiography. Other people like all their Penguins in a row or a chronological structure. That would be interesting, though I'd agonize: chronologically by first publication or your edition? What about Penguin who for decades didn't date subsequent impressions and editions (the bastards). How about subject matter?

That's all by the by. The article I read is about the interesting little bits about your personal collection: when you acquired books (Mark scrupulously records on the flyleaf when and for how much he got each one of his 14,000+ books) and what you've done with them. I like finding inscriptions and dedications, old bookmarks (once a perfectly preserved crocus fell out), receipts and jottings. If I look at my books, I find receipts from shops all over the country and years back: Kwik Save Broken Biscuits, 37p marked the spot in The Faerie Queene at which I gave up.

Sometimes your books tell you so much more about what's happened to you. For instance, my collection of Paul Auster and Don Delillo texts. I read New York Trilogy for university and loved it, which tells you that I'm geekily male, interested in structure and postmodernism and cleverness. So I bought all the other books he'd published up to then, in a variety of new and second-hand editions. But by a couple of years later, I'd continued buying work by these authors, but they're not on the shelves with NYT. They're languishing in the unread section, and the collection isn't complete as my enthusiasm, judgement and tastes change.

Another thing you can tell from my collection is how much money I have at any particular time. Although my purchasing habits are sometimes arbitrary, there are authors whose work I buy automatically. When I have money, I'll buy the hardcover which is published first, at greater expense. When I don't, I'll force myself to wait (yes, it does happen occasionally) for the paperback or a second-hand copy. Far too often, I buy the hardcover at full price and find it in The Works for £3.99 only a few weeks later, and curse myself for foolishness. My Terry Pratchett books consist of two shelves of paperbacks (from when I was a teenager and then poor student), then leap into a shelf of hardcovers marking my entry into the labour market.

There's also a kind of apartheid going on in my collection. At work, I have the books I'm working on at the moment, plus all the new books I've bought but not read, because my house is already full. But at home, the general shelves have some things that might be considered Literature mixed in with what I've bought for pleasure. Except that I have a couple of bookcases devoted to Welsh literature, which was both pleasure and what I formerly worked on (and will again, by Grabthar's Hammer), and a couple of bookcases of literary theory and the like. I sometimes think that stuff should be at work, but then I think that it separates my professional life and my personal interior life. However: am I keeping the theory books at home as part of a performance of intellectual activity - showing visitors what I'm 'really like' after they've seen all the 'fun' books? Why not mix the academic in with the general population - the separation is artificial, after all? (Partly because they're easier to find, of course). One of the great things about my job is that it's based on what I'd do anyway: read and talk about books, so keeping 'work' books at work and 'other' things at home seems somehow wrong - and in any case, my Cultural Studies angel keeps whispering to me that separation implies Leavisite value judgements.

A few years ago, I lost my passport. I had to phone the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to cancel it, provide a police report and beg for a new one. It was made very clear that I'd been irresponsible. I suspected that my landlord had thrown it away because he accidentally disposed of a box of my stuff. How I cursed him.

A few months ago, I found it. It was serving as a bookmark in a very dry analysis of masculinity in modernist poetry. I am ashamed.


oldgirlatuni said...

I love this post! I also think that you can learn a lot about someone's books, but I do worry about my own bookshelves and their message - law, history, philosophy (obviously), but rather too much about true crime and murder (for my thesis - honestly!), and a rather worrying interest in WWII (particularly the Nuremberg trials). I worry that such titles mark me out as being some kind of potential serial killer.

My literature is segregated, shelved in alphabetical order by author, and within that by first published date.

And, then there are the piles of books on the floor, waiting to be read or shelved - mostly because I've run out of shelf space.

Not to mention the ones in my office at Uni that I'm actually using for work.

I cannot imagine life without my nest of books.

Zoot Horn said...

My books are organised by historical period, with some periods sprawling over most of a wall (reflecting research, teaching, and nerdy obsessive interests). There are also piles and outcrops of stuff, bought since I shelved everything else, that throw this organisation into apparent arbitrariness, and some that are grouped together because of considerations of size. Such things used to keep me awake at nights, but now I've mellowed a lot. Some of my favourite books are hardbacks which I got for the price of a paperback because the latter was out of stock. Heaven. Unless of course they're too chunky to fit where they should: then I have to consider knocking walls down.

The Plashing Vole said...

Perhaps a glance at one's shelves is a form of psychiatric enquiry. When I had a housemate turn violently psychotic, we had a look at his room. Packed with books and DVDs featuring the occult and extremely violent martial arts. I wouldn't have had him sectioned on the basis of his reading material (if we started there, Mark would be sharing a cell with Charles Manson), but it was indicative.

Sometimes I feel that the sheer quantity of books will overwhelm my system. I've already run out of space at home and at work. Reshelving is an utter nightmare.

By the way, Zoot's library is one of the cosiest, loveliest spaces I've every been in.

David Wells said...

I look forward to one day having enough space to store my books somewhere other than under my bed.

Also, I found another Left Book Club book it's a hardback "These Poor Hands" by B. L. Coombes. One you need?

The Plashing Vole said...

Under the bed isn't bad. The last place I lived was a single room in a student house. There was a 1m by 1m by 1m cube at the end of the bed, plus all four walls covered floor to ceiling by bookshelves, plus several ceiling-high piles in front of the shelves. When I moved to a flat and bought 16 extra height bookcases to accommodate them, I did wonder how I'd lived previously.

Thanks for the offer of the B. L. Coombes, but I've got that one. It's an interesting one, the memoir of a Herefordshire man who went off to the Valleys to become a miner amongst the Welsh. Oddly though, he wasn't from Herefordshire, but Wolverhampton. I've never quite worked out why he changed that aspect.

Zoot Horn said...

You can't work out why he changed his backstory?
Where do you live again?
Wouldn't you?

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. Really. I would be afraid to invite you to my house ! Are we clutter-busters who read then give to charity or happily pass books on ( keeping only those books that have some kind of sappy history) also psychotics ? What about having copies of The Broons and Oor Wullie in the bathroom?

The Plashing Vole said...

I'm never judgemental. Well, almost never.
I just can't get rid of books - perhaps because I never know when I'll teach with them or need the loo paper/warmth.
As to the Broons and Oor Wullie: I only know one fan and he's a Northern Irish loyalist so there are Scottish links. Are you married to him?

Anonymous said...

Just a completist -I'm after the complete works of Dudley D Watkins (and Freddy Gillies)

Anonymous said...

Where do you keep the books you've stolen from your younger brother then?

The Plashing Vole said...

I find it difficult to imagine that my brother has any books worth stealing. I prefer my pages to be paper, not thick cardboard.