Whenever I enter someone’s home, I’m drawn to their bookshelves. It’s not a conscious effort; it’s just the part of a house I find most interesting. Seeing someone’s books offers a glimpse of who they are and what they value. It also makes for good ice-breaker conversation. Some people like to snoop through medicine cabinets, but that only gives you insight into a person’s physical well-being. The books tell a tale about the person’s mind.
This proclivity has paid off for me big-time. Before we started dating, my now-wife, Kate, developed what she called the bookshelf theory of dating. She had met someone at a party in her apartment a couple of years earlier who asked questions about her books, one in particular. That was telling, Kate told her friends; interest in her bookshelf was a quality she wanted in a partner. Years later, on one of our early dates, I brought up the same book, still on her shelf, and she cut me off. “It was you! You were the person who asked me about my books. I developed a whole theory of dating around you!”
Our fate must have been written.
Bookshelves have been surprisingly good for me, but they hold tangible benefits for everyone. You may not have a biography written about your life, but you have a personal bibliography. And many of the books you read influence your thoughts and life in often deeper and longer-lasting ways than film, television, music and other attention-grabbing pleasures.
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” Henry David Thoreau asked rhetorically, referring to nearly everyone. That was long before there were ubiquitous screens, but it’s still true.
Books as therapy
“Reading literature can increase a person’s happiness, decrease stress, and unlock the imagination,” is how the website BiblioRemedy described the goals of its bibliotherapy, in which a specialist talks to you about about the issues you’re wrestling with and recommends books to help you sort them out.
We’ve probably all been bibliotherapists at some point. When I meet young people in the midst of their searching-for-the-meaning-of-life stage, I recommend “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham. For those who’ve seen a thing or two, I’ve given “To Bless the Space Between Us,” John O’Donohue’s poems on the human experience. And for friends who have experienced true tragedy, I have shared Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart,” in hopes it may offer them some guidance through their grief.
Reading as exercise
Even when we read for pleasure, we usually learn something (which you can rarely say of entertainment television). “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” wrote the English politician and writer Joseph Addison.
Let’s not discriminate, though. Nonfiction, fiction, reference books, children’s lit, sci-fi, poetry: All are portals of discovery and meaning. Books, rather than bite-size posts and podcasts, take you spelunking instead of merely peering into the cave.
Your ideal bookshelf
“The reason I started the project was by looking at people’s bookshelves and thinking about what that taught me about them,” Mount explained. She and La Force agreed it would be fascinating to see the ideal bookshelves of certain people (not necessarily famous ones), so they began asking. And by painting the books those individuals considered their favorites, or the ones that made them who they are, or changed them in some way, it creates what Mount describes as a “portrait from the inside … almost like a book aura.”
Mount added, “It’s fascinating that you can take something so basic as a book spine — just a rectangle with words — but it represents so many huge ideas about what’s inside.”
It’s a fun and insightful exercise to ponder your ideal bookshelf. Which books have influenced you the most? Which volumes make your heart soar or brain buzz? Which do you reread because, at different stages of life, they reveal new insights? Or which ones do you find so enjoyable that you return to immerse yourself in the story again and again? And what do they collectively say about you?
To e-book or not to E?
But consuming good books is more important than the medium in which you do so.
And if you prefer e-books, that’s another argument for maintaining a virtual bookshelf. “People want to own physical books less but they still want a record,” Mount said.
It was for a similar reason that 20 years ago I began drawing books on a virtual bookshelf of my own.
The 20-year bookshelf
The gallery above is my hand drawings of the spines of every* book I’ve read since my last year of college, sketched in various writers’ notebooks I’ve kept over two decades. (*Well, not every kids’ book that I read to my young children, but some of the better ones.) Spines, as Mount points out in her book, are “totally lost in the digital age.”
The drawings started out as an artistic lark and ended up a literary timeline of my adult life. I love looking them over and seeing the books that jog memories of eras of my life: what I read my middle school students as a reading teacher in Teach For America (including “The Catcher in the Rye”), while living in Dublin (Ann Charters’ “The Portable Beat Reader”), living in San Francisco (“McTeague” by Frank Norris), traveling around the world for a year (Paul Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky” in Morocco, Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” on long train rides in India), starting my job at The New York Times (Gay Talese’s “The Kingdom and the Power”), becoming a father (“Protecting the Gift” by Gavin de Becker), and on long flights overseas while working for the BBC (Russell Brand’s “My Booky Wook”).
Many moves, plus access to great libraries in various cities, have meant I’ve only retained a small fraction of the books I’ve read, no matter how much I’ve loved them. And speaking of retained, my shelf is also a reference — an “aide-mémoire,” as Proust might put it — when I want to recommend something I can’t quickly recall.
There is a desire in our collective human experience to mark ephemeral time with the corporeal. For some, tattoos connect them to dates and places of their lives. Others collect vials of sands from beaches, or coffee mugs from the cities they visit. Many keep journals, many more create photo albums, and many more chronicle on Facebook. The virtual bookshelf is just another form of that. A great one, I’d argue.
So, whatever else you’re bingeing on these days — podcasts, magazines, Netflix, Candy Crush, cat videos or CNN news — make sure you’re still getting a steady, healthy diet of pulp. And keep your books on a bookshelf, real or virtual, to enjoy the memories.