In the New Yorker, Susan Orlean admits to being a book snoop. When she’s on holiday in rental houses, she tries to figure out who the owners are by their books:
I always start with the bookshelves, which makes me worry about my future vacations, when all reading material will have migrated to an electronic format and the bookshelves are empty except for Hummel figurines. Then what? Where will I begin my snooping—in the spice cabinet? Fortunately, the owner of this house is obviously a dead-tree kind of reader, and I have deduced that he is a physician. (I do think I’m a genius, but the stacks of diagnostic manuals would have been a pretty big clue even to lesser minds.) The Leo Rosten books are a religious giveaway—did Rosten ever sell a single book to a non-Jew?—and while the majority of the books are high-toned and intellectual, they are leavened by the yeasty Steve Martini thrillers half-hidden under the night table. My guess? A Jewish doctor who travels and buys the thrillers for diversion during flights, even though he was really and truly planning to use the time to read something serious, like the Beethoven biography that sits on a prominent shelf, untouched.
To be honest, I’m a bit of a book snoop myself. I love seeing what people have on their bookshelves and I’m always a bit shocked when there isn’t much. Then I know it’s going to be a superficial friendship rather than a deep one, because I can’t really be friends with someone who doesn’t read. One friendship was cemented for life when a new friend came to dinner and saw that I had The Girl of the Limberlost on my bookshelf. She hugged me with shining eyes, saying, ‘I can’t believe I’ve finally met someone who has also read it.’
If a book snoop visited my house, she would have a field day. We are dead-tree readers, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the hallways, sitting-room, all bedrooms and in both offices. Plus, she would need more than one rainy day because there’s no system. Apart from the shelf of cookery books in the hallway, it’s abitrary.
I once attempted a system, and it looked like this:
It was based on colour and fuelled by a very nice bottle of red wine. And three years later, it doesn’t look like that anymore. (Now that I think about it, my Girl of the Limberlost friend was the same one who helped me colour-code the books. This is what we booky types do for fun when we get together.)
In my house, a book snoop would find history books cuddled up to books on human capital management and thrillers, classics in the childrens’ rooms and a disorienting array of contemporary fiction everywhere. One selection from one shelf would find Elizabeth Kostova next to Donald Maass next to James Wilson next to Qiu Xiaolong next to Mary Gordon next to Doris Lessing next to Jane Smiley next Anne Tyler next to Deon Meyer. She’d find chick lit in bed with Booker Prize winners and crime fiction making eyes at dictionaries.
She would come to the conclusion that the owners of the house are book-hoarders who are passionate about reading, people with an intellectual bent that is tempered by an addiction to genre fiction. Someone might work in HR systems, someone might be a writer or writing a book, there are definitely children in the house, they love to cook, they are chaotic and random, but one thing is for sure, they love living with books.
What would a book snoop say about you?
(Hat tip to DGLM for the link.)