Over at The New Yorker, Susan Orlean has a blog post on snooping in other people’s homes. She’s renting a house—usually occupied by its owner—for a vacation, and has been looking at the bookshelves to figure out who this person is. Her deduction: “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.”
Orlean is unusual in having an opportunity to peruse a stranger’s complete home library at her leisure, but I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of us use the contents of our acquaintances’ bookshelves to learn more about them. And knowing that, we all try to adjust things slightly, to present the face we want seen—putting that untouched Beethoven biography where it can’t be missed. Most of my bookshelves have open sides, so the cover of the last book on each shelf is more readily visible. I absolutely adjust how many books each shelf has so that those visible covers are ones I’m happy to have representing me.
Of course, sometimes the most visible books are the ones I’m trying to keep in my own thoughts—that library book I need to return, that Advanced Copy a coworker wanted to borrow, that gift for which I really ought to write a thank-you note.
What books do you keep in sight? What have you learned from other people’s bookshelves?