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!