Reading people by their books

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.

But what kind of books do people buy just for decoration? Attractive, large-format hardbacks full of photographs? Or are all those colorful covers on other books with just plain text in between doing more than just catching your eye in a bookstore? And if I think books are just for decoration, what weight should they be given in the analysis? That their owners are trying to impress the kind of people who are impressed by books surely counts for something in their favour, from a bibliophile’s perspective. And perhaps I can infer things from what my hosts aspire to read, were it not for the fact that, as they say, ‘I’m just too busy to read these days’.

This latest survey highlights another complicating factor, unread books. In an article called ‘Once I put it down, I just couldn’t pick it up’ (the Brits are very good at headings and captions) The Times lists the top ten unread fiction and non-fiction books in the UK:


1 Vernon God Little, D.B.C. Pierre; 2 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J K Rowling; 3 Ulysses, James Joyce; 4 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis De Berniãres; 5 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell; 6 The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie; 7 The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho; 8 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy; 9 The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy; 10 Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky.

Signs there of the judgments of literary prize committees not being shared by the reading public.


1. The Blunkett Tapes, David Blunkett; 2 My Life, Bill Clinton; 3 My Side, David Beckham; 4 Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss; 5 Wild Swans, Jung Chang; 6 Easy Way to Stop Smoking, Allen Carr; 7 The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher; 8 I Can Make You Thin, Paul McKenna; 9 Jade: My Autobiography, Jade Goody; 10 Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?: And 114 Other Questions, Mick O’Hare

This list I like. People cannot finish books telling them to stop smoking or eat less (but if on the shelf, credit for recognising there is a problem). Advice on the correct placement of apostrophes clearly doesn’t hold the interest of all (Truss), but again some marks for acknowledging a shortcoming. Few politicians can write good books about themselves, as the unfinished Blunkett, Clinton and Thatcher books remind us (though some British politicians can write good books about other subjects). As for David Beckham, clearly he is better watched than read.

Unread books would be the biggest obstacle to anyone reading me by my book collection. There would be no mistaking my interests, and publication dates would allow a tracking of my interests over time, but every year I buy more books than I read. Many I have no intention of ever reading cover-to-cover. With non-fiction, that can be an inefficient way of extracting the information you want. Others are on topics that I should know more about, and the books sit there silently nagging me to reduce my ignorance. Take these as aspirational books. Multiple books by the same author would be a reliable sign that at least the earlier volumes have been read with profit. Scribblings in the back and in the margins signal that the book engaged me, negatively or positively.

But I don’t buy any books to impress others. With several thousand other books competing for attention, nobody is likely to notice anything I bought to impress anyway.

27 thoughts on “Reading people by their books

  1. Well, a quick glance at the current books beside the computer: ‘10,000 sheep’, ‘drat that fat cat’; ‘the silver stream’; and ‘reader rabbit-rhyming words’ probably says worrying things about my intellect.

    I like ‘drat that fat cat’ the best.


  2. You would get the wrong impression from my bookshelves – reference works only and crowded with impressive dictionaries and grammars after a recent visit to Melbourne’s Foreign Language Bookshop.

    I once had several thousand serious and beautiful books, which for various reasons, I decided to divest myself of. Since then I’ve continued to give away books after I’ve read them – I’ve just looked in the box which is ready for the Oxfam shop and yes, these are not books serious people would have on their shelves – latest Anne Tyler novel (not as good as The Accidental Tourist), latest Margaret Drabble novel (not her best), Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005 so not totally embarrassing – loved it), Dai Sijie’s latest (nothing like the wonderful Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), Joan Didion’s recent book about death (she’s always fashionable to the cognoscenti) and, a horror to Andrew Norton, Susan George’s Another World is Possible If (I fell in love with Susan George when I heard her speak at UWA about 30 years ago – this however is a truly awful book).

    But then I also read even lower brow stuff, but that I get from my local library. So there’s not even an Amazon trail linking me to Deepak Chopra.


  3. I don’t know how someone could pick up Crime and Punishment and be able to put it down, but I sympathise with those who couldn’t finish Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – I tried twice and couldn’t get past about page 30. Is it chick lit?

    Buying books to impress people is kind of like buying CDs to impress people: kind of undergraduate. You get to an age where you don’t mind fessing up that you are simply too dumb or lazy to read Proust or Ulysses…


  4. I think the tell-tale sign of a person having bought books for the cache that comes with them, or who doesn’t understand the books that they may even have read, is to judge how the books sit together.

    If In Search of Lost Time and Crime and Punishment sit on the same bookcase as The Godfather and The Power of One, we’ve got ourselves a faker.

    And I still remember trying not to laugh when a not-well-read acquaintance mentioned how much he got out of Ulysses.

    And is Vernon God Little the worst book to have won a Booker?


  5. I heard of people buying books to impress others, but I simply cannot believe that 55% ADMITTED this.

    I have a very strange attitude to buying books. I almost never buy books. I find that if I wanted to buy books in any kind of systematic manner, I won’t have enough money and enough space. So I buy none. When I want to read something (and this doesn’t happen very often these days), I can go to the library and get almost anything. Besides, I haven’t read all the (Russian) books I have on the shelf already, so what’s the point of buying new ones. And finally, why buy today if I can buy it any time?

    I know all this sounds pretty silly. It actuall IS silly. But I can’t find a way around these stupid problems.


  6. Of course, there is also the issue of office bookshelves versus home bookshelves. Since accepoting an academic job, I keep most, if not all, of my economics and mathematics books in my office and most of my other books at home. As a result, the books at my home are dominated by fiction. In fact, they are dominated by the science fiction, fantasy and crime fiction genres. As a result, people who visit me at home get a somewhat incomplete view of my reading habits.


  7. I have a number of Chomsky books (as do many of my friends) — but then they’re all too do with linguistics. Its interesting how Chomsky was able to lever his position in a completely different field to get into politics (I guess no worse than media/sports personalities doing the same – perhaps better — at least he is a smart guy). It would also be interesting to know how many people read his political stuff only because they read his linguistic stuff.


  8. Conrad – An important distinction. Chomsky is a respectable figure in linguistics. However, I would take owning several of his political books as a proxy for loopy left political beliefs.


  9. Looking at the magazines that people buy could be some other way of determining what interests a person. With books, there’s the “wanting to appear intellectual” aspect, as well as the “not completely read as the book is quite long” aspect.

    Magazines are often shorter than books, more of-the-moment than books, and cheaper, individually. I subscribe to Scientific American, National Geographic and The Economist, and regularly read New Scientist and the monthly/quarterly journals of my professional associations (the Australian Math. Soc, American Math Soc and New York Academy of Sciences).

    I’ve bought some books because I think that they looked interesting and that I’d understand them later on (eg “The Undivided Universe” by David Bohm).


  10. “It would also be interesting to know how many people read his political stuff only because they read his linguistic stuff.”

    Linguistics is a rather narrow discipline and I can’t understand why people outside that specific profession would read Chomsky books on Linguistics. Politics is different; it appeals to everyone and is much easier to read. So I do nto think there would be a strong connection there.


  11. On magazines, I get: The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, Prospect, Literary Review, New York Review of Books, Private Eye, Quadrant, The Monthly, various think-tank publications.

    I buy after assessing each issue in the newsagent: The New Yorker, The Economist, New Scientist. I still look at The Spectator, though rarely buy it these days.

    Journals: Critical Review, People and Place.


  12. “Chomsky is a respectable figure in linguistics. However, I would take owning several of his political books as a proxy for loopy left political beliefs.”

    Andrew, when you review a Clive Hamilton book (for example) do you buy it? Isn’t it possible that the person in question owns a number of Noam Chomsky books so they can better debate those with loopy left political beliefs?


  13. Borofkin – Yes I do, and I have a large number of ‘money is bad for you’ books by other authors as well. As the rest of the post points out, these proxy measures can be misleading. In my case, the large numbers of books on liberalism and volumes generally in favour of market economics would raise the possiblity that I don’t actually support Hamilton. The matter could be resolved by looking inside the Hamilton books, which contain many highly critical notes to myself.


  14. “I find I barely have enough time to read my magazines, sometimes barely enough to skim through most of them!”

    Why then subscribe? I get Physics Today and a few other magazines as society member, but I seldom find the time to even have a cursory look at them. And I even switched to online access for professional journals (including one where I serve as an associate editor) as they take too much space.


  15. Antonios wrote:
    If In Search of Lost Time and Crime and Punishment sit on the same bookcase as The Godfather and The Power of One, we’ve got ourselves a faker.

    Oh no. I’m a faker.

    Seriously – owning a copy of Puzo’s pulpy “Godfather” may just be an offshoot of enjoying the movie (that’s my excuse anyway). “The power of one” may well have been a christmas gift, I can’t remember paying for it (probably my wifes book come to think of it).

    Regardless, if you have the following:
    Dostoevsky: “The Brothers Karamazov” (better than Crime and Punishment).
    Herman Melville: “Moby Dick”
    A decent (non annotated) bible (perhaps the King James version?).
    William Faulkners: “Light in August”

    You don’t really need much of anything else to understand modern society. That these books are mixed in with pulpy trash doesn’t make anyone a faker. Everybody can use a little popcorn between meals.


  16. All the students at UWA who have stumbled across “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” on the Library shelves can thank me. When I recommended it for purchase I was called before The Librarian (Leonard Jolley, husband of Elizabeth) to justify this outrageous proposal. I mentioned that I had been reading James Joyce’s letters, in one of which he claimed to have spent a very enjoyable afternoon reading Anita Loos’ new novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes. The book was purchased.

    Agree about Dostoevsky – people should go for the Reader’s Digest condensed version of Crime and Punishment. Also love Faulkner but recommend As I Lay Dying to people because they will read such a short, thin looking book – and it’s guaranteed to “blow your mind”. Never fails.


  17. I’m singing “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” to myself.

    Boris, it was only after I subscribed to the mags that I found myself scarce of time – but it’s enjoyable reading through them, and I enjoy looking at them, even if I don’t read them thoroughly.


  18. Sacha – I also browse magazines (and Deepak Chopra et al.) for therapeutic mood lifting – maybe seeing trivia on people’s shelves just signifies a melancholic personality that needs some brightening up. Chocolate for the mind.


  19. I looooooooove looking at people’s bookshelves – its a very good way of starting conversations, particularly when you go to a dinner party with friends-of-friends who you don’t know very well.


  20. “I loove looking at people’s bookshelves”

    This doesn’t work for me. The moment I start looking, I become interested and start reading – to the point that it becomes clearly impolite to the hosts and/or guests.


  21. Russell’s right – just like in education and labour market analysis you’ve got to think about the outflow as well as the inflow when trying to draw conclusions from stocks.

    When I read a book I generally sell or donate it afterwards unless I think I’m highly likely to read it again (which is fairly rare). And of course I get rid of ones I can’t finish – life is too short for bad books. OTOH I keep all the books I couldn’t get around to starting (my house is too small to keep books I don’t intend to do something with, but I’ve got to have something to look forward to in retirement).

    The consequence is that the stock of books in my house are a handful I want to read again (and again and again in some cases) and many that I really mean to read one day but haven’t started. It’s quite atypical of books I’ve actually read, though I suppose it reflects my broad interests.


  22. Well here at Harvard, the University Library runs a competition for undergraduates’ book collections for which there are substantive monetary prizes, the collectors have to write up their collection – some of which are, given the extraordinary talents of the undergrads at this University, outstanding. As a grad student, I only wish they had such a competition – although I suspect my collection of books on various Balkan wars, security sector reform and of PJ O’Rourke would unlikely qualify 🙂


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