LORELAI: Hey, what happened to our books?
SOOKIE: What do you mean?
LORELAI: All our beautiful, leather-bound books. Jonathon Swift, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens. A lot of them are gone.
SOOKIE: The guests must have swiped ’em.
LORELAI: They swiped Jonathon Swift and left me with Clifford, the Big Red Dog and five copies of He’s Just Not That Into You.
SOOKIE: We’ve been airplane booked.
(“Pulp Friction”, Gilmore Girls)
In Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Gertrude Stein said that one “should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad“. In my undergraduate degree I had the privilege of being able to study canonical or ‘high brow’ literature (e.g., Shakespeare), but as part of my popular fiction course I also studied Mills and Boon. The cultural and commercial impact of the Mills and Boon industry is actually amazing. However, I still sometimes cringe when I see one particular bodice-ripper on my bookshelf (in case you were wondering, Lady With a Past, by Lillian Cheatham, 1985).
Each time that I’ve think I should throw it away (or at least hide it) I’m reminded of old article in the New Yorker which discusses the idea of books as pieces of cultural furniture. The idea is partially centred on the theory that the display of books is linked to one’s self-esteem. I’m not sure that I agree with use of the term ‘self-esteem’ in this context, but there is some value in the general idea. It probably helps shed some light on why there are many, many unread copies of the complete works of William Shakespeare sitting on dusty bookshelves.
I have no doubt that some people experience anxiety over the contents of their bookshelf, hiding the Cliff Notes behind the canon as if people will judge them. We are not supposed to like pulp because reading is meant to be easy, but not too easy.
I have been told that I have a lot of books. It is true that many of them are canonical or professional, but I pride myself on not being a book snob, so Lady With a Past stays. I’m not convinced that you actually learn that much about someone from those Facebook quizzes asking how many of the world’s greatest books you’ve read.
There is a lovely essay called Unpacking my Library. In it, Walter Benjamin, whose library has been in boxes during two years of personal and political trouble, recalls his intellectual development as he pulls out each book. He is reminded of where he bought each one, why he bought it, and his thinking and feeling at the time. I think that I could do this with most of my books, so for me it’s more about reminiscing than displaying cultural furniture.
One of my favourite books on my bookshelf is a beautiful old and faded copy of Winnie the Pooh with the cursive inscription “Dearest Priscilla, with a kiss from Auntie Margie, 6/5/1930”. I have no idea who Priscilla or Auntie Margie are, or what their story is, but I like to wonder.
Another of my favourites is the family recipe book, which I pinched from my parent’s house when I left home. It’s FTB (falling to bits), but is filled with glorious recipes. There’s at least 8 different scone recipes (each with a note claiming that particular version is the best) and things I know I will never make (like lamb’s fry). My mother’s almost indecipherable cursive gives measurements like “dollop”, and “slurp”, penned years before Jamie Oliver was born.
Dad’s recipes, on the other hand, are written in heavy print which still leaves visible indentations 3 pages later. He uses good Scottish words like “tatties” (potatoes), and you get a real sense that he was keen to convert to using the metric system in the 1970s, whereas Mum sticks to ounces. Starting at the back of the book, you can see my additions and trace the development of my handwriting (and probably food preferences) from about age 10 through to adulthood.
Another book which is rather nostalgic to look at is the hardest book I ever read. Of course, it’s probably not the hardest book I’ve ever read, but when I read it at age 19 it was pure hell. Understanding The Political Unconscious by Fredric Jameson was the key to passing the third year subject that a course coordinator reassured me I could take in second year. Considering that I barely understood anything the lecturer was talking about half of the time, I did not think that Fredric and I were going to become friends. I made it out of that class with a High Distinction, and, in hindsight, it was probably my most favourite class ever. It was a great foundation for someone interested in psychology, literature, consumerism and pop culture. Yet, I have not opened this book in over 10 years because Frederic Jameson tormented me so.
According to Sam Gosling, Psychologist and author of Snoop: What your stuff says about you, there is a lot to be learned about people from their books. Apparently the fact that I have a good variety of books should mean I am open. Though I am not sure what Sam would say about my colour-blocking, or about Lady with a Past.
However, bookshelves are not what they used to be. With the availability of e-readers to hide your trashy reading choices, this could mean that people will turn back to the good old medicine cabinet as their preferred place of snooping. In researching the art of preventing medicine cabinet snooping, I’ve learned that you can place a pile of marbles in there before a party (a weird little tip I read on this blog). I wonder what can the contents of a medicine cabinet can really tell you about a person? Everyone knows the best hiding place for anything truly sneaky is the inside a book.
Cheatham, L. (1985). Lady With a Past. Mills & Boon.
Hemingway, E. (1974). A Moveable Feast
Jameson, F. (2002). The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Psychology Press.
Walter B. (1982). Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting, in Illuminations, Engl. trans. (London: Fontana), pp. 59-60, 63, and 66-67.