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.