Judging a Reader by her Book Covers

Over at The New Yorker, Susan Orlean has a blog post on snooping in other people’s homes. She’s renting a house—usually occupied by its owner—for a vacation, and has been looking at the bookshelves to figure out who this person is. Her deduction: “A Jewish doctor who travels and buys the thrillers for diversion during flights, even though he was really and truly planning to use the time to read something serious, like the Beethoven biography that sits on a prominent shelf, untouched.”

Orlean is unusual in having an opportunity to peruse a stranger’s complete home library at her leisure, but I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of us use the contents of our acquaintances’ bookshelves to learn more about them. And knowing that, we all try to adjust things slightly, to present the face we want seen—putting that untouched Beethoven biography where it can’t be missed. Most of my bookshelves have open sides, so the cover of the last book on each shelf is more readily visible. I absolutely adjust how many books each shelf has so that those visible covers are ones I’m happy to have representing me.

Of course, sometimes the most visible books are the ones I’m trying to keep in my own thoughts—that library book I need to return, that Advanced Copy a coworker wanted to borrow, that gift for which I really ought to write a thank-you note.

What books do you keep in sight? What have you learned from other people’s bookshelves?

7 thoughts on “Judging a Reader by her Book Covers”

  1. Ooh..interesting post! Books generally in my line of site are the ones that I need to read! Ones I’ve read get sorted into their appropriate section…KEEPS (aka hands-off-it’s-mine)…and GIVES (enjoyed the read, but willing to share with others). Haven’t seen too many others book shelves except those that share online and some of my book blogging friends are in a similiar boat as I. Thanks for sharing…and happy reading!

  2. Currently most of my non-fiction is visible in the living room; fiction, women’s studies and Native American studies (non-fiction overflow) are in the bedroom where I don’t spend a lot of time. Not sure what that says about me since most of my favorites are in the bedroom.
    I love snooping through other people’s bookcases….it always makes me a little sad to go into a house with no books anywhere in sight.

  3. I love this post. I’ve never thought about people making assumptions about me based on the books on my bookshelf.

    I know I’ve grabbed a book and erased a few things out of it just in case someone decided to flip through the pages!

    But now that I think about it, maybe I should just keep books like that in my bedroom.

    I automatically gravitate to bookcases, so if I walk in your home and you have one displayed, I will stop there before taking a seat!

    love love love this post!

  4. I’ve got bookshelves and stacks in every room of my house, bathroom included. Most of them are either YA, Kids, SF/F, or religious. That about sums me up.

    Did you know the CIA and other agencies use bookshelves to create a psychological profile of people?

  5. Jaleta- I had no idea that the CIA uses bookshelves for that, but it totally makes sense! My apartment is a mix of bookshelves and precarious-looking stacks. I tried for a while to keep them organized, but between me and my roomate (another bookworm) they’re getting out of control. I will say that when I walk into someone else’s house or apartment, and don’t see any books, they definitely get points off in my mind.

  6. We have books all over the house – I totally believe that “Books do furnish a room”! My mother is still traumatised from babysitting once in a house where there was absoluely nothing to read – she’d assumed she’d be able to pick something off a bookshelf!

    Over on PaperTigers, we have a “Round the World in 100 Bookshelves” where we ask readers to send us photos of their children’s bookshelves…

  7. I’m actually very proud of the books my wife and I own and make a point to display them in such a way that shows off our collection. When we moved to our house it allowed us to actually have a room deemed “the library” dedicated to housing our books. The library can’t hold all our books, but it is great to have a room that one can be completely surrounded by books.

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