1 EAGLETON NOTES: Books and People

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Saturday, 18 March 2017

Books and People

One of the things that I do when I am in someone's house is look at their book shelves. Books interest me. In fact books interest most people that I know.

I was recently reminded of an incident about 40 years ago when I was living a few doors away from one of my colleagues. We were both new to the Isle of Lewis and were both from the North West of England. Our families had become friendly. We often shared a car into work.

One day I was in the friend's house waiting for him to get ready (I am compulsive about being on time. He wasn't). I started looking at the books on his bookshelves. When he came into the room I said (and I have absolutely no idea why I said) "I hope you don't mind me looking at your books." To which he responded that he most certainly did. Of course I thought he was joking. He was not. He went on to opine that it was a violation of someone's privacy because you could tell too much about a person from their bookshelves.

I suppose that he was correct but I certainly hadn't seen that coming.

Would you object if I was looking at your bookshelves and do you think I would learn a lot?

39 comments:

  1. I love to look at bookshelves too as I am always keen to discover new books, and seeing my favourite authors on someone else's shelves is reassuring as it does tell me we have things in common. But my own shelves are very depleted now. Mainly old treasures and many of my favourites have been replaced by kindle copies. Much harder for you to browse through the thousand books hidden on my iPad, but the titles that show up on my recent purchases would certainly reveal a lot about me. Mainly on adoption, sociopathic people and stress management.... and on reflection I probably don't show that list to people so i can understand your friends reaction. If they were paper copies they probably wouldn't be on display!

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    1. I hadn't thought about the Kindle factor Fiona. You're correct, of course, and I also find that with the Kindle I don't remember which books I've acquired which I seem to do more easily with paper copies. As for the recent purchases you mentioned they probably belong to a more private part of your life so I can understand that.

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  2. I am also an avid bookshelf voyeur - it's more interesting when people get shirty about it, makes you wonder what they're hiding! As for my bookshelves, there are depressingly few in my house, so a lot of our books are in the attic (still). But some of what's on view is The Complete Works of Shakespeare, a collection of works by Guy de Maupassant, a few by Rainier Maria Rilke, Cornell Woolrich "Waltz Into Darkness" - from which came the movie "Original Sin", biographies of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Billie Holiday (and others of their era), the screenplay for "Withnail &I" (of course), several other publications about the movie, first edition of Choderlos Laclos' "Les Liaison Dangereuses" in French, "Dangerous Liaisons" in English, an 1881 edition of "The Shakespeare Phrase Book", Peter S. Beagle's "The Last Unicorn", the "Outlander" series by Diana Gabaldon, some Charles de Lint novels, books on baking breads and making soups, Brother Cadfael's Herb Garden, books on gardening, on Scotland, a book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnets, some Robert Burns, and more.

    My plan is to find a brilliant and inexpensive carpenter who can add bookshelves to the gap in the stair railing, which is now just plain wooden poles painted black. The poles look jailesque, and I would much rather have bookshelves. Had one chap in, and he quoted me $500 and I said no thanks, I'll keep looking.

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    1. Mrs S that really is a very diverse, telling and interesting sample of your books. Oddly Rainier Maria Rilke popped into my life recently although I cannot think why. Shakespeare and Maupassant we share. I too have both English and French versions of Laclos's Les Liasons Dangereuses but for some strange reason my English translation retains the French title. Good luck with your search for a carpenter. You wouldn't have seen the majority of my books when you visited because they are on bookshelves in the loft. They are due to be culled when CJ comes up this summer.

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  3. I would be delighted for you to view our many book shelves and if it gave you an insight into our interests then all would be well. From the variety of topics on display it would, I think, stimulate some great conversations.

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    1. I'm sure it would Heron from what I already know about you.

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  4. Graham, if you looked at our bookshelves (and you'd be more than welcome), you'd wonder why we had quite so many. The answer is we just can't bring ourselves to get rid of them. I know we won't read most of them again, but somehow that just isn't the point. They map our reading journey over the years, even the ones we didn't like. They're a bit like a diary.

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    1. Frances I hadn't thought about the diary aspect but I suppose a lot of my books act like that for me too. They show different stages in my life.

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  5. Upon spotting "Confessions of a Window Cleaner" on my shelves you might surmise that I am some sort of pervert but I swear that's not true! I find it odd that your work colleague was genuinely defensive about his books. What was he trying to hide?

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    1. YP I have absolutely no idea whether he was even trying to hide anything. I think he was just 'that sort of person'.

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    2. Well, he was from the north west. Perhaps that explains it.

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  6. Graham, you can come to my house and look at my bookshelves anytime! I think you might guess the kind of books that I would have, not too many novels I can promise you that!
    Looking at the comment from Frances above, that is the same with us. We seem to want to keep all our books!

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    1. Kay keeping books seems to be a common phenomenon. True bibliophiles seem incapable of parting with them. Mind you I know one or two ardent readers who read and dispose and one ardent reader who has no books in either of their residences. It's not that their homes are monastic in any way. She just doesn't like books hanging around the house.

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  7. I, like you, look at other people's book shelves. I never thought of it telling me about the person but about what the person is intersted in. I also like to see if they read any books I read and also to get some good ideas for books to read. I like bloggers who list books they read.

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    1. The difference between what a person is like and what a person is interested in would be a good topic for discussion Red.

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  8. Fi, Mrs. Slapthing ("avid bookshelf voyeur") and Frances - I echo your comments. We had to get rid of hundreds of books when we packed up all our belongings before setting off for three years' caravanning. If people have books on display in their 'public' rooms then I don't see how they can possibly object to people having a look. I'm always surprised at the eclectic collections I sometimes see, sometimes quite at variance with who I perceive the person to be!

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    1. Nancy I admire your willpower in getting rid of books. I certainly agree with you about books on display in 'public' rooms. That's probably why I never expected the response I got and why the incident has stuck with me so vividly these last 40 years.

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  9. Graham, you'd be welcome to browse my bookshelves anytime. I think I'd enjoy watching you trying to make sense of the Swedish titles... ;) On a more serious note, I like looking at people's bookshelves myself, and I don't usually mind people inspecting mine. The 'Kindle factor' applies for me too, though... And also a growing collection of downloaded Audible audio books, also only visible on my phone or computer. Which might give the false impression (judging from just my bookshelves) that I stopped reading years ago, even if in fact I did not!

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    1. I think I'd deduce, Monica, that you were fluent in Swedish. I suspect that it's not a language people tend keep books in unless they are fluent.

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    2. But you know that already, Graham! ;) A more challenging question: if you didn't know that the books were mine, would you know that the language was Swedish?

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    3. Monica I think that I might know that it was a Scandinavian language.

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  10. Well, you were at your colleague's house and allowed into a room with book shelves - so the books were openly displayed, not hidden somewhere. I would understand the man being upset if you had been rummaging around in the room, opening cabinet doors and desk drawers, but you had not. What is on a shelf is visible to anyone, just like pictures hung on a wall. If he did not want you to see his books, he should have kept you waiting somewhere else, in the hallway maybe.
    I do that, too, look at people's book shelves. If I remember correctly, we were on about that a few years ago on my blog, either by a post or in comments to a post.

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    1. Not your colleague, but a friend, I have just realised. As a friend, he had even less reasons for being upset.

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    2. Meike I agree absolutely. It didn't even occur to me someone with whom I was friendly might not be happy. Which makes it even more odd that I should have asked if he minded. I think I was just being over polite.

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    3. Oh dear Meike you were absolutely correct. I did an almost identical post (What Do My Books Tell You) last May. It's quite interesting in that it anticipated the Kindle question too. I had completely forgotten.

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  11. I can not dispose of my books either. It would be the same as lopping off a friendship! We moved house twice during the last five years, each time into smaller homes and I was forced to do some eliminating (duplicates and ones I had really not liked) ... very traumatic. I miss them still. I donated most to library sales and was sorely tempted to go and buy them back.

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    1. Jill I sometimes look for a book I know that I have only to find that it's gone in one of my culls. I then spend ages wondering how I could ever have let it go.

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  12. I definitely wouldn't be offended if you perused my bookshelves. I absolutely LOVE books and I can't bear to get rid of them, unless I really disliked the book. Every bookshelf I have (and there are many) is full of books. In fact, anytime I am in a book shop, I have a compulsion to buy at least one... usually more! Our adult children always know where to come if they don't have any new reading material.
    I love your thought provoking/conversation starting posts! I love your photography posts to (but you already knew that). :)

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    1. Thank you Liz. I don't buy anywhere near as many books now as I used to and, to be honest, I don't read as many either. Many of my books on my visible bookshelves (I have far more on bookshelves in the loft) are reference books. Nowadays, ironically, it is often much easier just to Google what one wants to know. Friends do come and 'raid' my shelves (even braving the loft to do so) for reading material.

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  13. In all fairness it's been six years but I'm having a strong sense of deja vu, oh and from last year as well. Maybe we should add a book of memory exercises to a shelf somewhere :)

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    1. Mark I tried memory training years ago in my 20s starting with Mum's books on Pelmanism: all to no avail. I learned to accept that I have an appalling memory.

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  14. You would be welcome to look at my bookshelves but I doubt you would learn a lot because most of my books have been given away.
    I read recently that one should be wary of anyone whose TV is bigger than their bookcase and through no choice of mine, I think I fail that test. I can also say that t here is probably more than a grain of truth in it.

    I really enjoyed this post

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    1. Thank you Kylie. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Dare I ask why you parted with your books or are you just not a hoarder?

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    2. The short story is that we have no room. In general I am not a hoarder but I have difficulty getting rid of fabrics whether it be pieces that have never been made into anything or finished items that I have a particular attachment to

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  15. Looking at people's bookcases is a favourite occupation of mine and most thinking people are happy when you ask them because it means you're taking an interest in them and their tastes.

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  16. You're welcome to peruse my bookcase anytime GB.

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    1. Thank you Virginia. I'd love to say that one day I might just pop in but I think it unlikely I shall ever be over that side of the world.

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