“The Subconscious Shelf”

I am utterly fascinated by bookshelves. Specifically, other people’s bookshelves. Whenever I’m visiting someone’s home for the first time, my eyes always seem to find their way to the bookshelves. I can’t help it. And yet, there’s always that sneaking sense that I’m meddling a bit more than I should be, by taking a peak into someone’s inner life in the form of books.

Leah Price has an enjoyable essay on bookshelves which articulates some of that meddling feeling when we sneak peaks at those bookshelves (The New York Times: “The Subconscious Shelf”). The books we and other people tend to display can sometimes be quite a personal thing: “To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self.”

Part of it might be self-motivation (“I’ll read this … eventually”), part of might be vanity on our parts (“Check it out: I read Proust!”), and maybe the motives are equal parts deception and self-deception when it comes to those displayed books that we’ll honestly never read:”We display spines that we’ll never crack; we hide the books that we thumb to death. Emily Post disapproved: her 1930 home decorating manual compared “filling your rooms with books you know you will never open” to “wearing a mask and a wig.”

Part of the appeal of bookshelves to me is that it can be a private and surprisingly revealing look into someone’s internal life — either how that internal life is, or how they hope it might be — and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that we are all to some extent the things that we choose to read. And now, social reading websites such as GoodReads.com or even the “Books” we decide to list on a Facebook profile are very much a part of that projection of the bookish shelves we want to show to the rest of the world.

“Because books can be owned without being read and read without being owned, bookshelves reveal at once our most private selves and our most public personas. They can serve as a utilitarian tool or a theatrical prop. For a coffee-table book of my own, I recently toured a dozen writers’ book collections. Gazing at the shelves of a novelist whose writings lie dog-eared on my own bookcase, I felt as lucky as a restaurantgoer granted a peek at the chef’s refrigerator.”

Flann O’Brien (aka Brian O’Nolan) may really have been on to something with his book handling service idea. I’m really thinking of bringing this idea back. And I think I’d call it, “Already Read Books” —

“In the 1940s, the Irish humorist Flann O’Brien proposed a “book handling” service for clients who liked the look of a well-stocked library but lacked the time or ability to read its contents themselves. If you joined his book club, O’Brien explained, “we do the choosing for you, and, when you get the book, it is ready-rubbed, i.e., subjected free of charge to our expert handlers,” at a series of different price points:

“Popular Handling — Each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark. . . .

“Premier Handling — Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog-eared, a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each. . . .

“De Luxe Handling — Each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets, a passage in every volume to be underlined in red pencil with an exclamation or interrogation mark inserted in the margin opposite, an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten book-mark (3 percent discount if old Abbey programmes are accepted), not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and not less than five volumes to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors.”


Surprise me


I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

What I’m Reading Now:

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

Related Articles

Have questions or ideas or requests for working together?

Get in touch