Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Living with Books


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.)

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

15 thoughts on “Living with Books

  1. In alll rooms, but the bathroom and kitchen, there are books to be found. Living room and children’s rooms have bookshelves. Adult bedroom, there are just two piles on the floor on either side of the bed. We also have night tables beside our bed that contains books. So, the books on the floor can be consider overflow.

    The only bookshelf that is ordered is in the living room. In the lower middle, the stomach of the bookshelf is cookbooks and religious or spiritual books. Above, the heart, are books I’ve read so many times I’ve stopped counting (here you’ll find The Girl of the Limberlost). These books are my healing books that I read whenever I am in bed with a flu or my spirits are low. To the left, are books to read and loads of family paraphernalia. To the right are the rest: mostly classics, Canadian lit, chick lit, and crime, and travel.

  2. Love your bookshelf, very lovely! I agree about what reading and love of books says about a person, feel that little note to self happen when i discover that aspect of someone new i meet.

    I read all the time, love books. But i have a different feeling about having books around me… so if you were book snooping in my home at the moment you’d see no books.. well no books of mine, perhaps a pile of books from the library.

    We are in true downsizing/travel mode… so i’ve basically given or sold all my books. Even before downsize/travel mode, i always gave away books once read. I had a group of reading friends, so whenever i got a book, i’d read, enjoy and hand off to the person in that circle i felt would enjoy it as well.

    I think it comes from the fact that i don’t actually like to re-read books, so i get more out of sharing books than i do saving them for future reads.

    Being in travel mode has meant that we’ve rediscovered the library. There’s nothing better than hanging out in the library for a long linger, then going home with armloads of books, audio books, magazines, dvd’s, picture books etc!

  3. I had a colour system once as well! At the moment, the only system people might find is big books on one shelf, vaguely Japanese themed books on another (two or three shelves, actually) and books I’m not that interested in at the moment stuffed in boxes under the bed due to lack of shelf space.
    A book snoop would probably conclude…Well, very little, I suspect. That there are too many unread books and books are my most common form of retail therapy? (And that I’m doing a lot of therapy at the moment?)

  4. The colour coding is quite simply hilarious, beautiful and ironic. (I have always sniffed at hotels that put ‘books’ on their shelves that tone with the decor. I remeber the jolt of disappointment when I went up to snoop the books and found nada). But sniffiness aside, I think it is not a bad way of organising books; I know that when I looked for a CD on the shelf, before the Halsband digitalised all our music, I always scanned based on the case spine colour!

  5. Ha! I do suspect that you are a woman after my own heart. I also published pictures of my book shelves recently although I must admit that I do have a system (slightly anally retentive tendencies I’m afraid.)

    At the moment I’m reading Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. She is a wonderful writer I think. Can’t wait to read The Secret River.

  6. We also feel a bit strange in houses with no books to be seen and there are books in all our rooms including the bathrooms (usually a pile of books that any member of the family may currently be reading on the loo!)
    Our system is entirely arbitrary and probably only makes any sense to me, as it is based on books that I think go together.
    Girl of the Limberlost gets a priority position in the sitting room book shelf, though P has to get the credit for introducing me to it – he tracked it down along with Loon Feather as an essential read for his wife to be!
    I think a book snoop would discover that we re-read favourites until they fall apart, are naturally inclined to well-written escapism with occasional forays into serious literature and lapses into pure fluff. And find it very hard to part with a book, since even my A level texts in German and French still have shelf space!

  7. I think the book snoop would say just about exactly your last paragraph if she came knocking on my door – you’ve described it perfectly. My new shelves are being installed tomorrow, and I have been having this very debate with myself: do I leave everything piled in together, without order, or do I try to impose a library structure on my own collection?? I love the idea of both. I think books should mix, much like people, but the Virgo in me aches for separate shelves of fiction, biography, travel etc. I can’t decide. You’ve been there, done that – any advice is dearly appreciated!!

  8. Since the vast majoriety of my books- some 30+ years- are in storage, a snooper would probably think me terribly disjointed- so many series and authors without earlier books or connections.
    All my Gene Stratton Porter, while sitting in boxes at home, are also on my Kindle, where the Alcott, Nesbit, George Macdonald, Barrie and other childhood treasures also abide, when I am not re-purchasing them for my children’s shelves.
    You could tell tha I am a book addict though, because they are overflowing in all directions.

  9. A book snoop would say about me pretty much what she’d say about you. It’s funny, though: most visitors describe my house as “relaxing” when “chaotic” is what springs to my mind.

  10. They would probably think that I had had about 20 different guests staying recentlky and that all of them had left a randomly selected group of books …!
    Huge congratulations on your agented status! Am delighted.

  11. Love this! We’re book people too–husband, daughter, son and me. And we all hit every bookstore we pass. Can’t resist. I guess if a book snoop came through and broused our shelves…s/he might say…Where’s the erotica? That’s the ONE thing we don’t have. 🙂

    I came over from MysteriousMatters. Your blog looks great. I’m going to explore. 🙂

  12. Yikes, that funny man with his back to you in the pic is actually my husband. He uses WordPress-have no idea why his picture shows up on my comments. 🙂

  13. “I can’t really be friends with someone who doesn’t read.” Gosh, I think that might be true of me too. I don’t think I ever realised it though.

    I SOOOO love the colour coded books. I REALLY want to do that to mine.

  14. A book snoop would be terribly confused by my house. There are books in every room including the bathroom. The collection is eclectic in the extreme, ranging from the Encyclopedia Britannica through an extensive collection of herbals and garden books through every kind of genre of novel you can think of liberally studded with plums of non-fiction all the way from from politics to physics. Don’t forget the large collection of music.

  15. I love to read all the time.Whenever I get free time I read books.Books are my best friends.This is my biggest time pass and I never feel bore by reading.I like to read horror books more.

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