Some say that they can read other people ‘like a book’. But you can also read other people by their books. I always find a bookshelf analysis a useful way of getting acquainted with someone without having to ask too many questions. A shelf full of Noam Chomsky tomes? I’d better avoid discussing politics. Books on spirituality or lives of religious figures? Nobody could read more than one or two of them without being a believer, so skip religion. Too many books with the author’s name in large, gold-embossed letters? Better keep the conversation on mass culture topics. I noted but tactfully said nothing when I found a copy of Fat Is a Feminist Issue on the shelves of a female colleague who was not quite as slim as she once was.
Though helpful, the bookshelf examination is not a perfect analytical tool. A 2005 survey found that one in three residents of London and south-east England had bought a book ‘solely to look intelligent’. So if I was using books as a proxy for human characteristics I could wrongly come to the conclusion that a person was intelligent, because he or she had a book that an intelligent person would buy. And now another British survey finds that:
Fifty-five per cent of those polled for the survey said they buy books for decoration, and have no intention of actually reading them.