While 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.
Ezra 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.