You Are What You Appear to Have Read

Scott McLemee writes about the shelving of books, spinning off Matt Selman’s list of rules for shelving books

RULE #1: THE PRIME DIRECTIVE — It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it. Therefore, to be placed on Matt Selman’s living room bookshelves, a book must have been read cover to cover, every word, by Matt Selman. If you are in the home of Matt Selman and see a book on the living room shelves, you know FOR SURE it has been read by Matt Selman.

(has anyone ever seen Selman and Mike Kozlowski in the same place?) and Ezra Klein’s response to Selman:

Bookshelves are not for displaying books you’ve read — those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I am the type of person who is very interested in a history of the Reformation, but am not, as it happens, the type of person with the time to read 900 pages on the subject.

McLemee has it about right when he says of Klein

There is bravery in such candor. The word “poseur” is still around, after all, even if the people who study consumer behavior, and try to channel it, have coined the kinder and gentler term “aspirational taste” for this sort of thing.

So, I know you’re all dying to know: How are books shelved in Chateau Steelypips?

Well, we don’t really come down on either side of the Selman/ Klein debate, for the simple reason that we don’t have significant shelving in the living room. There are two small built-in bookcases on either side of the fireplace (refinishing them was a bitch and a half, let me tell you) that you may have noticed in some dog pictures, but those don’t contain any significant portion of our collection (which runs close to 2,400 books at the time of this posting). One set of shelves contains our athologies and collections, the other contains the long series we own (all of Nero Wolfe and all of the Brother Cadfael books) plus series DVD’s (the full run of Homicide, a few other things).

The vast majority of our books are upstairs, in the bedrooms and the room I use as an office (where I’m sitting as I type this). We’ve got a half-dozen sturdy pine bookcases that we bought from a local unfinished furniture store holding our hardcover collection, plus another seven or eight paperback shelves (I think they sell them as videotape/DVD shelves, but they’re the right depth for a mass-market paperback). The vast majority of these are genre fiction, primarily SF, Fantasy, and Mystery, and they’re shelved aplhabetically by author.

I sort of hold to Selman’s “Prime Directive,” in that I only shelve books that I’ve read. This isn’t so much for display reasons as it is because I forget about unread books if they’re mixed in with the read books. As a result, there’s another “To-Be-Read” shelf (an old particle-board bookshelf I got when I was in grad school) in what used to be Kate’s office, containing books that we’ve bought but haven’t gotten around to reading. There are also a lot of stacks of books lying sideways on the shelves in front of the read books, which are either to-be-read books or books that I haven’t gotten around to shelving properly.

All books on the shelves are alphabetical by author, as God intended.

We also have a single bookcase of non-fiction books on various subjects, though that undercounts our collection a bit, because all of my physics books are in my office on campus Except for the ones that I needed to refer to when I was writing my book, which are now piled haphazardly around my office at home.

My on-campus office contains mostly textbooks and pop-science books, most of which I’ve used for some class or another, though there are a few free promo copies of intro texts, and a stack of books I took from Ralph Alpher’s office after he retired. I also keep a bunch of duplicate books around from when Kate and I merged collections– the first six or seven of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books, the early Black Company books, a couple others. I occasionally loan them out to students.

In the end, though, we’re more with McLemee than Selman or Klein:

Around here, the “prime directive” is that there should not be any books on the floor. If a marriage is its own little civilization, this is among the basic clauses in our social contract. Insofar as “aspiration” comes into play, I find it operating at the level of daydreams about replacing one of the closets or windows with another set of shelves.

Clothing and the outside world are much overrated, in my opinion, which does not carry very much weight in this particular case. Bookshelves are storage; that is all. The idea of using them for “display” seems cute and improbable.

In fact, we’re about to have the garage remodeled into a library/ family room (my car doesn’t fit in it, so we just use the garage as a place to store crap), with built-in bookshelves down both sides of the room. This will let us convert the spare bedroom into a nursery for FutureBaby, my office into a spare bedroom, and most importantly, it will give us plenty of space to hold our entire book collection.

Of course, it will be on the ground floor, and thus visible from the public areas of the house. Which, I suppose, means we’ll be sending a message to people based on our publicly displayed book collection. That message is: “We have a lot of books.”


  1. #1 Simple Country Physicist
    February 27, 2008

    Books to be retained are shelved. Books that have not been read are placed in obvious and obstructionary places to enhance the liklihood of being read. Once a book is read it is either sent to a used book store or the library salvage book store, or shelved. Books are ordered by LOC taxonomy.

  2. #2 EarlyToBed
    February 27, 2008

    On our main bookcase–~500 books–they are organized by albedo (top to bottom, to reflect more light into the room) and then by subject, loosely. There is also a significant random component. Upstairs we have paperbacks in our room, and kids books in kids room.

  3. #3 Kate Nepveu
    February 27, 2008

    Actually the Brother Cadfael books went upstairs, to make room for the DVD sets.

    The Nero Wolfe series gets a separate shelf because 1) it’s mixed between paperback and hardcover in a way that few other series we own are, and it’s nice to have them in order and 2) we needed something to put on those shelves when we moved in.

    I am unreasonably excited about all the shelf space we are going to gain from the garage conversion project. (I keep meaning to back-of-the-envelope the result and figure out how many bookcases it will amount to, but forgetting.)

  4. #4 Dunc
    February 27, 2008

    Hmmm… I have a few books on my shelves that I’ve tried to read and failed, and several that were gifts from people who obviously don’t know my taste in books that are completely untouched. They should probably go to a charity shop, but you never know – I might one day get a burning desire to read “Shackleton”.

    I fully intend to finish Rawls’ “Theory of Justice” one of these days – honest! “Republic”, on the other hand, will probably languish unfinished…

    Oh, and there’s the complete single-volume Chapman translation of Homer that I bought because Amazon was offering it for £1.99 that I’ll probably never read in it’s entirety…

  5. #5 cisko
    February 27, 2008

    We have one small built-in bookshelf in our living room. This presents a unique challenge because it’s a) tiny and b) prominent.

    When we moved in I thought it might be a good spot for unread books, in the hopes that I might pick up something new to read as I walked by. That approach lasted for about two months. Anything I wanted to read got picked up, placed in the ‘I’m reading this’ stacks somewhere, and when finished was transfered to long-term storage somewhere.

    So now the built-in shelf has a bunch of books that I intended to read four years ago, but didn’t. Not an august collection.

  6. #6 Ron
    February 27, 2008

    Keeping to a small apartment for so many years, I’ve tried (and failed) to enforce the rule: for every new book that takes a spot on the bookshelves, another book must go to the Friends of the Public Library. I used to live in a friend’s very large home which he designed to have built-in floor to ceiling bookshelves on every available wall without a window. He had been there thirty years, and naturally, they were all full, and the halls still had books stacked on the floor. There must be some natural law there.

  7. #7 apy
    February 27, 2008

    Maybe I’m young and idealistic, but I just buy books when I’m about to read them. The only books which I own that I haven’t read cover-to-cover are references.

    Someday I’ll grow up I guess.

  8. #8 Homie Bear
    February 27, 2008

    I love how EarlyToBes organized by albedo! That’s hilarious.

  9. #9 speedwell
    February 27, 2008

    If I was to read every book in my house cover to cover, that would include all my cookbooks, all my knitting pattern books, all the piano music anthologies, every textbook, and a handful of dictionaries.

    All right, I have actually read all of those cover to cover, except the dictionaries, and I’ve made a decent stab at those. But you know what I mean.

  10. #10 Skwid
    February 27, 2008

    Homie Bear, the briefly mentioned Monsieur Kozlowski in the post famously once shelved his books by Publisher’s Imprint, so the logos on the spines aligned pleasantly. I can’t recall his secondary sort criteria; probably title typeface or something similarly useless.

    I shelve fiction and non-fiction seperately (non- goes in the office, fiction in the living room), alpha by author/editor, no seperation for genre or book size. Unread books are laid down on the shelves near where they should go once read, making them easy to find. Read books that haven’t been booklogged go in various stacks in the office and bedroom…this is a problem, as my booklog backlog is over a year old, now.

  11. #11 Jim
    February 27, 2008

    Why buy books? The stuff I have i may have looked at once but the stuff I want to read is at the library; let the pros shelve them.

  12. #12 JRQ
    February 27, 2008

    We have shelved books in every room in our 2br apartment plus a bunch in storage. a lot of the shelved books are unread — I tend to buy things I want to read, and after I read them, I decide whether to keep or get rid of them. Almost all the ones in storage are books I’ve read and want to keep, but don’t feel any particular need to display.

    We group books in small numbers (5-15)by type or genre, and each little group contains some that have been read and some that haven’t. We distribute these groups around the house somewhat according to who spends more time in that room, somewhat according to how visually aesthetic they are, but mostly just at random.

    For example, the living room has two built-in shelves that house most of my 17th and 18th century fiction, Some of my Wife’s contemporary mainstream fiction, S.J. Gould’s natural history Essays, Gene Wolfe’s Sun cycles, some hiking and camping guides, and some miscellaneous reference.

    We use what is intended to be a dining room as a sort of open study/office area, which some large bookcases that house some more general references, some popular social science, some fantasy and magical realism, Some Opera Guides, some epic poetry, some History, Some popular biology, Some Cookbooks, and more contemporary mainstream fiction.

    My political books, and old shabby SF/F paperbacks have all been banished from the more visible areas of the house, so they sit in my office, along with my more technical stuff. My SF short story anthologies don’t fit anywhere else, so they get to stay in the bedroom. My wife’s current “to read next” and “currently reading” piles are also in the bedroom.

  13. #13 Brad Holden
    February 27, 2008

    Pretty much every book in our living room has been read by one of us, though there are a few exceptions.

    I am amused by the idea of showing off through books. The literature shelves in the living room is heavy on poetry, modern fiction, John McPhee, and collections of cartoons. What does it say to have Mishima on the same shelves as Aaron McGruder? (The real answer is laziness….)

    Maybe I should say I aspire to be as smart as my wife but fail magnificently.

  14. #14 David Wren-Hardin
    February 27, 2008

    Nasim Taleb, author of the Black Swan, has an interesting perspective on books and personal libraries. He states that read books are much less valuable than unread books, and that you should have many unread books as you can possibly afford. He calls this an “antilibrary”, a constant reminder of all you do not know. For a full quote, look here:

    For my part, I shelve books that I’ve read, and that are personal favorites. We have large built-ins in our living room, and I frequently am handing out books from the shelves that I think people would be interested in.

  15. #15 Ford
    February 27, 2008

    Although our living room bookcase mostly has our mysteries and SF, I can imagine placing more thought-provoking books there to stimulate interesting conversations, if that were otherwise a problem. But it isn’t and we don’t.

  16. #16 Ewan
    February 27, 2008

    The ‘to-read pile’ just became the ‘to-read bookshelf’ in one of the first moves toward decluttering and moving; but otherwise stuff is only really classified as fiction/nonfiction (well, except for the three bookcases in the guest bedroom, which are almost entirely fiction as it seemed unlikely that a random guest would really need neuro texts or treatises on UK politics). This maps well on to ordering by size, which helps (although Amazon is screwing this up recently, with many cases where used SF hardcovers are cheaper than the same book in used paperback!).

  17. #17 Rev Matt
    February 27, 2008

    At one point I had a home office with a whole wall bookshelf. Sigh. My wife hates bookshelves in public rooms and more so in the bedroom so when baby #3 came along and I was evicted from my office all the books were either sold, donated, or put in storage.

    When I do have space I put the ‘to be read’ books on a designated shelf (even if some of them will likely never be read). But as a parent there’s another category of books: ones that I think we should have on hand for the kids. Some of them I’ve read, others I haven’t. The complete works of Shakespeare. Some Greek classics (Aristotle et al), classics of western literature, and so on.

    I tend to agree with Klein though the wording is offputting. I have a lot of books that I intend to read, but may not do so for several years (Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, for example).

  18. #18 Kevin W. Parker
    February 27, 2008

    I used to shelve books as soon as I bought them, but then found I’d never get around to reading them. Now the rule is that they must be read before shelving. So now there are about 60 books piled up behind the door in my study waiting to be read.

  19. #19 Tina Rhea
    February 27, 2008

    (Kevin Parker’s wife) And my study, which doubles as the guest bedroom, now has books stacked on top of the bookshelves, up to the ceiling, right next to the bed. I hope we don’t have any earthquakes the same night we have a guest.

    The first time we visited a friend’s house and I saw the bookcase in the bathroom, I knew I had found a soulmate.

    Relevant buttons:

    “I am a bookaholic. If you are a kind person, you will not sell me any more books.” (doesn’t work)

    “Of course you’re out of book space. Everyone’s out of book space. If you’re not out of book space, you’re probably not worth talking to.”

  20. #20 mollishka
    February 27, 2008

    I can’t wait until I own enough books that I have to think seriously about where they go. Right now I have one too many books for LibraryThing to let me catalog them all, and all of the physics-astronomy-math textbooks are at my office, with everything else in my living room … I used to have a stack of “I want to remember to read these” books on top of one of the shorter bookshelves, but then I noticed that those were more likely to get gnawed on by the cat, and so the To Be Reads went back on the shelf with everything else.

  21. #21 CCPhysicist
    February 27, 2008

    I like what The Little Professor
    just wrote on this topic. Follow the link to the photos of her home library, which contains over 5000 books. That is a library.

  22. #22 John Novak
    February 27, 2008

    Wow, it’s like the Handkerchief Code, only snootier.

  23. #23 Hank Roberts
    February 27, 2008

    My beloved and I had to each get rid of more than half of our books when we bought a house; we’d both had our apartment wall space filled (and I’d put bookshelves all the way down my stairwell as well, on the side opposite the handrail).

    Now our little bungalow has every easily used wall area filled with bookshelves I’d had custom-made for me years ago, shallower and taller than ordinary furniture (2′ wide, 6′ tall, 6″ deep, drilled for pegs for adjustable shelves). All finally bolted earthquake-proof.

    If there were only a way to shelve books on the ceiling, we’d be doing that.

    Many, many of them are unread of course, I agree that’s the best use.

    Some of them are too good to let go of, likely impossible to find again.

    Often I find myself puzzling over some odd thread of thought, and wandering through the house, and I’ll reach out and pull down a familiar old book, and idly turn the pages and stop — and there will be the lines I’d forgotten about, that I needed to reread.

    This is the “house of memory” I think.

    — this seems to be one way the brain works, a spatial memory, positional memory, being able to go back to exactly the same tree in the same valley and find the very same rare tasty fruit or nut or nest full of tasty eggs, I suspect.

    Computer files don’t do this for me at all.

    At some point I won’t be able to walk much.

    But I’ll still have plenty waiting to be read.

  24. #24 Hank Roberts
    February 27, 2008

    I must with sadness and glee note a truly wonderful pun — a typo in the excerpt from The Black Swan quoted at the link given above.

    No spoiler. You’ll like it when you see it, and you can search the online excerpt from the book to check what you suspect I’m referring to.

    (Comments are closed there, else I’d have noted it there instead of here. Pardon the digression.)

  25. #25 Craig
    February 27, 2008

    With the last move – the fourth in six years and the second cross-country – I decided that no, actually books don’t furnish a room, furniture does. Hence the majority of my books are in a closet dresser or a long West Elm trunk, and there’s just one small bookshelf by the bed for books frequently consulted. It’s much less stressful with a lot less dusting.

    And I sort by size and author, which in practice approximates Kozlowski’s method, which I never found odd to begin with.

  26. #26 Mike Kozlowski
    February 27, 2008

    I love the shelving by albedo! Better yet would be to use luminance on the vertical axis and hue on the horizontal axis. Man, that could be a neat effect.

    Also, we’re awful about our living room bookcase, in terms of showing off: We used to have our books out there, but videogames and DVDs evolved to crowd them out, and those have to be in the living room (since that’s where they’re used), so the books get relegated to bedrooms. Casual guests probably think we have no books, and just watch movies and play games.

  27. #27 Tina Rhea
    February 27, 2008

    When I read Craig’s comment that “books don’t furnish a room, furniture does”, I had a momentary vision of furniture composed of artfully-stacked books…. Those photos of the Little Professor’s new library fill me with envy.

    I used to think that the most useless of gifts were bookends, given by people who know you like books but have the strange delusion that your shelves aren’t full. Then I realized that the right kind of bookend can be used to anchor the line of books on top of the bookcase. Until I turned the books sideways and stacked them up to the ceiling. The real problem comes when the floor starts getting spongy.

  28. #28 Caffeinated Librarian
    February 27, 2008

    My living room is downstairs and my office (the only other place with bookshelves) is upstairs. The upstairs books are the ones that are either highly used (like reference books) or best loved (my Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery, and Classics books are there, for example). Books that are currently being read are piled beside my bed. The downstairs books are all my “English Major” books, popular fiction, history and other non-fiction. Books that haven’t been read yet are with the other books of their genre, then alphabetized by author…mostly. Since I tend to be a little lacking in bookends, there are books doing some double duty in that department and their arrangement is far less precise (not the mention the books piled on top of other books and that therefore aren’t in any kind of order…).

    The idea that I would display books on shelves only to convey what person I want to be is a befuddling concept to me. Since I am the person who uses and sees these books the most, why would I bother arranging them to impress other people? A quick glance at my downstairs books shows Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner beside Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe – I can’t even imagine how folks like Ezra Klein would interpret THAT combination. But if someone were to ask about whether I’d read either book, I’d say that I got frustrated with both of them about half way through and stopped, but that I fully intend to finish them sometime before I die…which is why they’re still on my bookshelf.

  29. #29 Jordin Kare
    February 27, 2008

    Mike @ 26 — Bookstore owners are of course very familiar with the customers who don’t know the title, author, or subject of the book they want, but know “It’s a little green book.” This has led to a variety of cartoons and silly discussions. I think the silliest one occurred on a private techie mailing list I read, in which the endpoint was the conceptual design of a “book spectrometer” in which libraries (necessarily transported into space, for the zero g) would be sorted by passing the books in front of a source with a suitably sloped spectral energy density. Each book would then have its trajectory curved differently by light pressure, depending on what colors the cover reflected or absorbed, and would drift directly to the appropriate receiving bin or shelf.

    Needless to say, this is *not* how my own library is organized…

  30. #30 Georg
    February 28, 2008

    So, do people who shelve by the “must have read cover to cover” rule actually read all their dictionaries and encyclopedias cover to cover? Or is it just that they don’t own any?

  31. #31 Leigh Butler
    February 29, 2008

    Wow, Selman would sure hate me…

    Back when I had the room, I had “living room books” and “bedroom books”, and they were divided by determining which would look prettiest in the public area.

    Therefore, all the mass market paperbacks and the rattier/more embarrassing trades and hardbacks would live in my bedroom, on cheap particleboard bookcases, and all the pretty/interesting/culturally-embiggening trades and hardcovers were on the snazzy actual-wood bookcase in the living room.

    However, in my defense I will say that I have read almost every book I own, and the only ones I haven’t are ones my mother/someone else clueless gave to me.

    Oh, and Neuromancer. I tried, really I did!

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