“What better place to kill time than a library? And for me, what better way to get to know someone than her choice and treatment of books?”
So asks antiquarian bookseller and amateur biographer Margaret Lea in Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale (a title, by the way, not to be missed by any booklover out there). While I myself am not an antiquarian bookseller—despite whatever hopes and dreams I may have to that effect—I find that I, too, often wander unintentionally into the role of amateur biographer when studying another’s library.
After all, Margaret’s is an excellent point: what better way to get to know someone than through his or her library? Or —as the case may be—lack thereof? When I enter someone else’s home for the first time, I subconsciously scan the room for shelves, bookcases, the odd title on an end-table with a bookmark in its place.
No bookshelves in the main living areas? Not a reader.
Bookshelves overflowing with college textbooks you refuse to unload? Reads, but only under duress.
Rows of nonfiction, business titles, how-to books, the like? Does not read fiction; or, perhaps worse, finds fiction not worth display.
One small shelf packed with a range of titles? Books aren’t worth the space, but are worth the time.
You get the picture. These may not be fair assumptions to make—and of course they vary greatly depending on a great many factors—but I am telling the truth when I say I cannot stop my brain from following this course.
So I ask myself: If I turned the tables back onto my own library, what am I telling people about my story?
Shelves of books on Irish history, language and culture speak to my husband’s Irish background, and my college studies. Further shelves of history tell the same college story. The lack of any other nonfiction is the most glaring exception here; we both lean heavily towards fiction. Our fiction collection is broken out into shelves of classics and modern fiction (anything written in the twentieth century and beyond), with a special shelf reserved for the Robert Jordan-esque fantasy novels we both devour.
But more important even than the skewing of books on the shelves, at least to me, is the fact that books quite literally litter our house. Our living room walls are lined with the infamous IKEA Billy bookcases, teetering and in one case even leaning quite precariously, all stacked end-to-end with titles; the coffee table shelf is lined with stacks of books and wordy games (Scrabble and the Booklover’s edition of Trivial Pursuit). Books line the window ledges along the staircase, and framed photographs of antique book bindings hang on the walls.
And that’s just the first floor.
Clearly, we are sending a message here. This is in part due to practicality: between my husband and myself, we just have too many books to fit tucked away into any one room. But even if I had a dedicated room for books, I don’t think I could stand to part from them. For mine is a life not just filled with books, but lived among them.
When I bring work home, I sit in our office and stare longingly at the shelves of ARCs (“advanced review copies”) waiting to be reviewed on the shelf. When I watch television, my eyes stray fondly over the well-loved copy of Love in the Time of Cholera on the shelf—the first book my now-husband ever lent to me—and the broken spine of Mark Helprin’s Winter's Tale, which I read the first year I moved to New York.
When I sit down to write, I always sit in the living room, where a glance shows me a row of newly-added titles on the shelf, originally purchased to act as the centerpieces at our wedding. There is Father of the Bride, which we found at a local antique store and sat on my father’s table; there is Love: A History, a slim paperback I have never heard of but will someday read. Each book is a memory, and an open invitation to discover or re-discover some new thought or idea.
My library lives around me, and I in it. What it says to someone else probably lies most in that other person. What it says to me, however, lies in my understanding of the story of each book, how it came to be in my possession; my knowledge of the notes carefully written in the margins of read and re-read favorites; the characters yet to be met in new titles by old authors. My library is a living, breathing, evolving entity, and whatever it says to visitors, to me it says home.