Are our bookshelves a reflection of us? | Discussion

Listening to The High Low podcast by Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes has been one of the highlights of my week for ages. I always look forward to their insightful perspectives on current events, books, and pop culture in general. Each time I listen to an episode I come away from it with a new nugget of information to ponder.

On May 5, 2020, The High Low released an episode that has since made me look at my bookshelves a little differently: the episode was titled, “Are Your Book Shelves a Reflection of Your Character – Or Your Curiosity?” In this episode, Dolly and Pandora discuss whether it is justifiable to judge someone’s character based on what is on their bookshelf.

My first instinct was to say yes. Surely we are influenced by what we spend much of our time reading and consuming, at least to some degree. But Dolly and Pandora brought up an interesting wrinkle: Don’t we sometimes read according to our curiosity? They discussed how there are many books on their shelves that they read solely for research, and as such they do not necessarily all align with their personal views. Perhaps, they pondered, bookshelves are more representative of what we’re curious and eager to learn more about than what we actually believe and value.

Their discussion made me think about the assumptions people might make if they looked at my bookshelves, sitting in a rather dusty corner of my childhood bedroom. Judging by the shelf dedicated solely to Spanish literature and translations, they might assume I’m fluent in Spanish (I’m not). Based on the sheer number of Philip Roth novels I own, they might conclude that I’m a big fan of his work (I’m lukewarm about it, but I did have to take an entire senior seminar on him in college). They might assume I studied history in undergrad due to the stacks of nonfiction books about United States history (nope–just really into learning about the time of the Founding Fathers as well as the Civil War/Reconstruction). There are some reasonable assumptions someone could make based on my bookshelves that would be true–I love memoirs and Lord of the Rings and books by John Green–but how would someone who didn’t know me distinguish those from the conclusions that are false?

There are countless reasons why people read: to learn, to challenge, to contradict, to experience a friend’s favorite book, to research, to explore something they’re not quite sure of yet. Simply because someone owns a book doesn’t mean that they agree with everything written inside of it. I’ve read a number of books that I didn’t agree with–for school, or for research, because someone I was dating at the time recommended it, etc. There are also an equally infinite number of reasons why someone might keep a book on their shelf. Right now there are several books on my shelf that I have little interest in rereading anytime soon, yet I know that I will likely not get rid of them in the near future. Some are gifts, some are attached to fond memories, some I purchased at specific bookshops I’ve visited, and some are just beautifully designed.

Of course, it is entirely possible that a book on someone’s bookshelf does represent their views; however, I think it’s a bit quick to judge someone’s character solely because a certain text is gathering dust on their shelf. Is it fine to ask someone about a book on their shelf? I would think so, especially if they’ve invited you to take a look at the books they own. We all have different stories and backgrounds and experiences that we carry around every day–and you never know which of those are tangled up in a single book on a shelf.

In this context, I guess I would take the old saying “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover!” and update it a bit: “Don’t automatically judge a person by their bookshelves without more context,” maybe?

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think bookshelves are more a reflection of our character or curiosity–or both, or neither? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

44 Replies to “Are our bookshelves a reflection of us? | Discussion”

  1. Fascinating question. As with most things, it’s got to be a blend of both. Looking at my shelf would probably give a decent idea of things I value and who I want to be. But there’s also there matter of how they’re organized and which ones I’ve actually read and which ones I’ve read multiple times, and all of those details impact the overall picture significantly. I think you can get a general expectation of a person, but it’s the details and context that would make it a more rounded judgement.

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    1. Very true!! I love that you point out that you don’t know if people have read the books on their shelves, if they’ve read them multiple times, etc.

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  2. I don’t think that will be case and I agree with your points. Most of the time I read because I love stories and that’s why I love fantasy. I read other genres as well because I’m curious to know about real life situations. I like to learn new things and messages in those book. They might have shaped the way I think now but of course can’t reflect exactly who I am. Wonderful post!

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  3. My first instinct was similar to yours when I read the title of your blog post. Now, after thinking about it and looking at my own bookshelf I have to correct my first idea about it because I have mainly fantasy reads on my shelf, lots of school books and some classics. So, is that my personality now?? What you can’t really see on my shelves is that I’m interested in history and have three different news apps on my phone in 3 languages and just many more things – as you say. Therefore, I am glad to have read your post and keep that in mind when I am looking at someone else’s bookshelf in the future.

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  4. What an interesting topic! I’d have to agree with you. My quick response was yes, they’re a reflection of who we are, but then I also started thinking about what is actually on my shelves—books from college classes, gifts, books my children were given but no longer want. πŸ˜‰ And then there are many non-fiction books on various subjects I’ve picked up but haven’t read yet. Thinking of our bookshelves as ‘curiosity shelves’ is a great way to broaden our horizons and invite more learning into our lives. ❀

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  5. I just watched an interesting video from a BookTuber who felt their bookshelves no longer reflected their interests but rather interests of their audience/other BookTubers and they ere just reading what was popular to give the people what they want. With an audience looking at your bookshelf everyday, I’m sure it’s easy to get swept up in its contents.

    Rachel || http://anotherstationanothermile.com

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  6. This is such an interesting discussion, Holly! I loved reading all your thoughts on it. πŸ’› I think personally, my bookshelf is a pretty good reflection of me- as I have limited space, I’ve had to evolve and frequently choose which books I want to keep on it and which ones needed to be donated, so pretty much all the books on there are ones that I actively love and read. I try to only buy books that I’ve already read so that I know I love them enough to own them, so I think that helps too! Ahh, this was so fascinating to read. xx

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  7. What a fascinating post! I agree that not everything on our shelves may reflect our believes – I’d say it’s going to be more curiosity than beliefs, especially for new books? But if you’re with someone that regularly clears out their shelves (not me), then I’d be more willing to think that the books that remain are somehow significant to them and hence a reflection of their character.

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  8. i actually think that my bookshelf reflects me pretty well! i only own books that i really wanna read, so most of them are YA/in the speculative fiction genre. so if someone were to look at them, they’d probably guess that i’m a teen who likes reading YA, & they’d be correct πŸ˜…

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  9. I listened to that episode as well! Do think it’s a reflection of both, however, when I compare my boyfriend’s shelf with mine it’s quite clearly a representation of our differences (predominately being female and male, but also personally wise)! haha

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  10. Ooo this is such an interesting conversation! I definitely need to listen to that podcast now, too. This is something I’ve never really thought about before, but I agree with what you said! There are some books on my shelves that I just feel indifferent towards, but people would probably assume I love them. I’d say for the most part my bookshelves are pretty reflective of who I am as a person, but I also have two shelves of books I haven’t read yet- so who knows how I will feel about those! This is super interesting and I will definitely be thinking about it the next time I go over to someone else’s house.

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  11. Such an interesting discussion! I don’t think I ever thought too hard about what someone might think when they look at my bookshelves (which currently I do not since moving). I definitely agree that there are some books that are probably on the shelf for various reasons and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

    I think I would get a lot of questions about the books in general – the plot, etc – on my shelf because I tend to read a wide variety of genres. Great discussion!!

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  12. Something this post made me think of (which I hadn’t considered before) is what about ebooks? Do they count? Because I will regularly go through my physical books to make sure that I’m not keeping books that I don’t want to own any more, but it’s a lot harder to clean up your ebooks. (Some apps make it easier than others, true.) And is there a difference between which books I decided to buy in digital format vs. paper?

    This post has a lot of great questions in it, and I have no answers. It’s fun to think about, though. πŸ™‚

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  13. You always have such thoughtful discussions! I don’t think my bookshelf represents me too well considering I have a collection of e-books and have recently begun borrowing from the library. I do agree that a bookshelf can be seen more as a collection of the person’s curiosity or even of their growth! Books or topics they’ve loved before might no longer be their beliefs but they hold on to it for sentimental reasons. There’s a lot to think on here!

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    1. Thank you so much! ❀ I agree, and I love that you included "growth" alongside curiosity–such a great way of thinking about what bookshelves may show!

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  14. I recently moved overseas and had to sell most of my books–a lifetime of collecting—before I departed. I have since created a new library that reflects my current interests. My previous library reflected the passage of time and included books that no longer reflected my my interests. The collection was, however, a sort of diary.

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  15. I think we can draw some conclusions about a person, if we see multiple books on one specific genre or one particular author. Also the maintenance of the book also would suggest a few things.

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