On shelving

i-b16d5639f33660082c6be20d0f4978de-booksiveread.jpgWhile Matt Selman’s rules of book shelving are clearly insane, Ezra Klein’s response is clearly not quite right either. The basic rule, from which all the others follow like a pack of hallucinating baboons, is:

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.

No, no, no. Some shelved books in TfK HQ have actually been read cover-to-cover, but others have not. Some have yet to be opened, but sit on the “to read” shelf, and once read they will be shelved again. Even if they are crappy and are not read cover to cover. Others are vestiges of college and grad school, in which I may have read the assigned Socratic dialogue, but not the rest of the book. Or they are textbooks, which are useful resources but which have no expectation of cover-to-cover reading.

i-227a65c5e79322c2026c92068fe6ff68-aspiration.jpgEzra Klein’s standard is very odd, though:

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.

The office shelf is for books that you refer to for work. These include textbooks, journals, etc., as well as useful references like the Bible, The Republican War on Science, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, and similar works. Some of those books I’ve read cover-to-cover, others I keep close by because I know that I can find useful information in them, even if I hadn’t already read it and integrated that knowledge. They are ways of offloading brain capacity, just like Google or Wikipedia.

Bedside shelves are not for books you’ve read, they are for books you plan to read. While falling asleep. A coffee table may, but need not, contain books you are reading at other times, but is mostly dominated by unread magazines. Read magazines have the good articles/cartoons clipped or (ideally) located online and saved as PDFs, with the paper copies then recycled; this last step is optional for those lucky ducks with excess shelf-space.

Some books on the main shelves might never be read, but they should have been purchased with the intent to read them, not with the intent to demonstrate that one is the sort of person who might have read such a book. Klein thinks the point of bookshelves is to demonstrate “I am the type of person who amasses many books, on all sorts of subjects,” and that, therefore, “The reading of those books is entirely incidental.” This is madness, and a waste of good money.

For me, the point of bookshelves is to hold books that one owns. This may seem radical, but I stand by that. Why, then, Ezra might ask, do we own books?

Some we buy because we want to read them. Others we buy because we thought we’d want to read them, but they turned out not to be that interesting, not that well-written, or to be well-written but erroneous treatments of interesting topics. Others come as review copies, and turn out not to be so good. Some we actually read through anyway, while the final pages of others persist in a state of indeterminacy familiar to SchrŲdingerian felines. That’s fine. Yet others are purchased to be references, or for brief literary diversions. Poetry anthologies, for instance, or the collected Shakespeare.

What does Selman do with such books? Sell them? Burn them? Absurd! Chad’s approach, filling a garage with shelves, seems reasonable. His only error, as Brian points out, is alphabetizing by author. I organize my shelves thematically and idiosyncratically. An author will usually have all of her works clustered together, but I’d rather have all of my presidential biographies next to each other, even if Edmund Morris and Robert Caro have very different last names. And there’s no reason that the Federalist Papers shouldn’t be close by, which leads to John Stuart Mill, Rousseau and Thucydides. By then you’re into philosophy, so might as well shelve Plato, Kant and Nietzsche nearby. And so forth.

On the science shelves, the ecology books lead naturally to the biogeography books, which lead on to the books on remote sensing. MacArthur naturally and necessarily comes before Brown or Brown and Lomolino, which have to precede Aber and Melillo’s textbook. You get the idea.

And yes, the two cartoons above are taped to the bookshelves, lest visitors take any of this too seriously.


  1. #1 TRACY
    February 27, 2008

    Next week’s topic….ceiling fans.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    February 27, 2008

    Ha – Obviously you got no big kids yet…

    You MUST be allowed to put books that others in your family have read on the den / office / library bookshelves.

  3. #3 IanR
    February 27, 2008

    MacArthur naturally and necessarily comes before Brown or Brown and Lomolino, which have to precede Aber and Melillo’s textbook. You get the idea.

    Actually, I believe that MacArthur and Wilson goes on the shelf next to the Origin of Species, in whatever place you try to show off what sort of an intellectual you are. It doesn’t have to live among the “working” books, because it isn’t something you need to consult. The first three chapters must be committed to memory before you are allowed to buy a second book on biogeography. No one has ever read chapters 4 through 7, and chapter 8 is only of historical interest.

  4. #4 Matt Penfold
    February 27, 2008

    “Some have yet to be opened, but sit on the “to read” shelf, and once read they will be shelved again.”

    I am glad I am not the only one who has a “to read” shelf.

    I have four systems for “shelving” my books. The currently being read, which are likely to be pretty near where I am at any given time. The waiting to be read soon pile, which lives next to my bed. A shelf of awaiting reading (the content of this shelf and the pile soon to be read often swap over, and books can go straight to the pile by the bed bypassing the self). And the read shelves which makes up the bulk of the contents of my shelves, and boxes in the garage come to that.

  5. #5 Michael D. Barton, FCD
    February 27, 2008

    Author David Quammen has written:

    “Of course anyone who truly loves books buys more of them than he or she can hope to read in one fleeting lifetime. A good book, resting unopened in its slot on a shelf, full of majestic potentiality, is the most comforting sort of intellectual wallpaper.” – David Quammen, The Boilerplate Rhino

    Apparently he thinks books that are unread belong on a shelf.

  6. #6 Josh Rosenau
    February 27, 2008

    Ian, I was thinking of MacArthur’s “Geographical Ecology,” which leads naturally to “Macroecology,” and then to Biogeography. You are right about MacArthur and Wilson.

  7. #7 Laelaps
    February 27, 2008

    Michael; At last, a quote that justifies my addiction!

    I know I couldn’t organize my books alphabetically; I would forget where everything is, especially as more books accumulated. Chunking things into certain fields/disciplines/areas of interest helps me find what I’m looking for even if I can’t remember exactly where I had left it.

  8. #8 Flex
    February 28, 2008

    There is one major catagory you left out: books that others have given you.

    This catagory can be broken into sub-divisions;

    ‘Books I would have bought myself’, can be shelved normally.

    ‘Books I would not have bought myself’, have to further sub-divided into;

    ‘Books that I shelve prominantly out of respect for the giver’, but make excuses when it’s clear I haven’t read them.

    And, ‘Books that can be shelved in obscure places (or boxed) because the giver will immediately forget that they gave me a book I didn’t want’.

    Of course, there are plenty of subtleties to shelving. I have a section of ‘comfort reads’. Books I’ve read a dozen times and are easy to replace so that if I drop them into the bathtub while reading them, no real harm is done. I wouldn’t want to do that with the nice edition of Pepys I got for Christmas. Those books can also be lent out (read ‘given away’) to people looking for good reads. Wodehouse, Rex Stout, Maxwell Grant, and a wide variety of science fiction authors reside here, from Asimov to Zelazny.

    Then there is the research tool. I collect a good number of referance books, and when I have a topic I want to learn about, I will pull all the books which relate to the topic out of the main stacks and put them on a shelf convenient to my desk. The initial work in setting up the temporary shelf is more than paid back by not needing to wander around the house looking for a book I remember reading fifteen years ago. Building a temporary tool like this allows me to be as pretentious as I desire (and I’m a pretty pretentious git).

    I’m very lucky to live near a town brimming with used bookstores. I love Ann Arbor.

  9. #9 Rugosa
    March 2, 2008

    I have another category of books: books that I buy at the thrift store or at yard sales because I’ve wanted to read them/think I should read them. They go into a couple of big piles, either in the living room (I’ll read these on the bus) or next to the bed (I’ll read these before going to sleep). When the piles fall over, I either put the books on a shelf or give them to friends/family/thrift store.

  10. #10 Andrew
    March 3, 2008

    Both Selman and Klein seem to think that books are a way of signaling status/”who you would like to be”. Klein is more explicit about it. Selman’s display is a little less pretentious, but still seems to be “look at all the stuff I’ve read, see how smart I am.”

    I also get the feeling Selman sees books as conversation starters and would be ashamed to admit he hadn’t read something. I don’t see any shame in that. I’ve got plenty of stuff I haven’t read, and would welcome conversation about any of it.

    The bookshelf is just a place to store books. I’ve got several dictionaries, cookbooks, hiking trail guides, textbooks, etc. None of which I ever plan on reading cover to cover. They’re useful references, so they go on the bookshelf.

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