One thing I’ve missed during the pandemic is going into other people’s houses and examining their bookshelves.
If I enter someone’s house and I don’t see any bookshelves or if the only bookshelves I see are decorated with objects d’art and not lined with books, I get tense, as if I were entering a dangerous dark alley. I begin to question just who is this stranger whose house I’ve entered.
Do you mean to tell me they don’t read? They don’t like books? They do all their book reading on an electronic device?
I end up reaching for excuses to wander deeper into an adobe. I head for the bathroom, turn left instead of right, and open the wrong door—into an office or a den or an extra bedroom. Sometimes I’ll find a bookcase in one of those rooms, with actual books in them. I’ll relax a bit, although I’m not entirely comfortable with books being hidden away in rooms where guests don’t visit—other than me, who sneaks around in search of bookshelves.
When I used to go to a party at someone’s house and found myself in a lull with no one to speak to, I’d annex myself to a bookshelf and study the titles until the social dance stepped my way again. I only went to parties if I knew bookshelves would be there.
Now if I’m on a Zoom call with someone and their background includes a bookshelf, I’m often distracted from the topic at hand because I’m trying to read the spines of the books. “What do you think, Klein?”
“I think if you move your camera a little left, I could see those books better.”
When I did find a shelf laden with books in someone’s house, I immediately began to categorize and analyze. Fiction or nonfiction? If fiction, are they mostly popular and genre books, or literary fiction? Classics or contemporary? Hardcover or paperback? Are the nonfiction titles predominantly business, self-help, history, philosophy, hobby-oriented?
It all matters. Books, without even being opened, can tell you things about their owners. Your display of books is akin to wearing your heart on your sleeve.
It’s true of my own book collection. Right now, things are a bit disorganized. I recently retrimmed and repainted my two bigger shelves on either side of the fireplace, which meant taking all the books out and then putting them back. But I put them back in an attempt to instill order upon chaos, which resulted in a discombobulated mash-up of alphabetical by author, hardcover, softcover, classics, nonfiction, along with any book anywhere it can fit.
Knowing where to find any given book, or even if I own a certain book, is an adventure when the following rooms in my house have loaded bookshelves: Breezeway, living room, family room, dining room, den, office, Owen’s room, Julia’s room, basement room. You can’t enter my house through any of its four doors without seeing a bookcase in your line of sight.
I just added another book to my bookcase: “Klara and the Sun”—Kazuo Ishiguro’s stunning new novel. I squeezed it into a spot where I keep some of my favorites.
I’m ready for when people start coming into my house again. The bathroom’s on the right down the hall. Go ahead, turn left. Examine my bookcases. Judge me. Or is it only me who does that?