1 January 2018 Susannah

People and their Bookcases

Library at Westbrook Station, Queensland, ca. 1898

We recently had some guests over for dinner who had never been in our house before. (Which, by the way is not the picture above, that’s the library at Westbrook Station, Queensland, ca. 1898.) They sat for a few hours in our lounge facing two large bookcases which must hold at least a thousand books. And they never made a single comment about the books all night. About 500 of the books are about Jane Austen, so it is an unusual sight to say the least, but even that provoked no comment.

I find this very strange!! The first thing I look for when visiting a new house is the bookcase. While my host is out fixing the drinks, I quickly nip over to scan the shelves, avid to see what sort of books sit there and what they will tell me about the owners of the house.

My bookcase

My Jane Austen bookcase

For book collections are someone’s biography, they let you get to know a person in a way that conversation cannot do. If you have a book in common you can discuss it, if you are filled with book-envy you can talk about that, you can begin to learn about authors you do not yet know, and you can find a rapid and totally enjoyable route to a new friendship. Of course, if there is no bookcase in the room and the house lacks the soul that books always bring, then you sadly have to accept that this is probably a relationship that will not go far. These days, of course, you also have to take the precaution of checking whether the owner of the house does all his or her reading on electronic books – you don’t want to condemn them as non-readers only to find that they get through a few books a week on a kindle.

Are you a book spy when you go visiting? Do you immediately look to see what books your dinner hosts have? I have wondered if my guests perhaps felt it was prying to go and look too closely at my books, but I’d have loved them to get out of their chairs, take books off the shelves and ask questions. I do judge people by their books, or lack of books – do you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

  Susannah Fullerton: A Book Collector’s Pleasure

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Featured image credit- Library at Westbrook Station, Queensland, ca. 1898. State Library of Queensland, https://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryqueensland/
Body image credit- Susannah Fullerton’s own bookcase. By Susannah Fullerton

Comments (37)

  1. Kate DeMayo

    Yes, I cant wait to see what my hosts read – but we must beware – people do put out books for show, just like some do with fine wines. There are consultants who apparently advise one on what looks impressive. Maybe get suspicious if they have no knowledge of “their” books…

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Good point! Though if there is a long line of Readers Digest Condensed Books, you can be pretty sure the owners are not real readers. There is a fabulous moment in ‘The Great Gatsby’ where people are amazed that the books in Gatsby’s library are real books and not fake ones just there for show.

  2. Catherine McGilchrist

    It is also possible that all the books are somewhere else in the house!! When I lived on my own in a small unit, the books were all on display on the bookshelves in the living room; there was nowhere else for them. Now, we are fortunate to have a ‘library’ – ha-ha…just the spare room with an entire wall of shelving for all the books. It has a wonderful book-ish smell and I always think I would be thrilled to be staying there for a couple of nights and could check them all out. Back to the point though; you might have to do a bit of snooping to confirm that the hosts are really not readers!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Very true. My good friend Amanda is lucky enough to have a library in her house, but somehow you can work out quite quickly if the house owners are readers – books are left lying around the house, the row of DVDs on the shelf by the TV is all based on English classics, and conversational mention will soon be made of ‘the library’ in the house. I guess it just delays the book talk by a short time, but yes, you do sometimes need to extend your snooping.

  3. Brian Doyle

    Perhaps your guests had macula degeneration and thought they were looking at wallpaper, how you kept your countenance Susannah I can’t imagine. Books cement friendships in a way very few other tangible things can,they educate, entertain and enrich one’s life beyond measure and a home without books is to me unthinkable. After a near death experience at the beginning of last year i immediately bought all 67 books on my reading list and the thrill of seeing them all piled up waiting to be read is beyond words, several of your recommendations amongst them, and now must get Scribbles in the Margin, no time to be snooping around other people’s bookshelves.
    A very happy new year of reading

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I totally agree that a house without books is unthinkable. I know my kids will curse me when I die and they have to deal with all the books in the house, but I still cannot resist collecting, owning and loving them. I am so glad you have taken me up on some recommendations. Happy New Year and happy reading!
      PS. You are being very kind suspecting macular degeneration.

  4. Brian Doyle

    hopefully by the time of your demise Susannah your book collection will be so unique that library’s around the world will be competing in a bidding frenzy to get their hands on it, your kids won’t be cursing you then

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I like your confidence, Brian. My kids would see it as recompense for all of their inheritance that I have spent on books.

  5. Having fully embraced the convenience of the digital age with ebooks and audio books, my library is now almost exclusively digital. I still love browsing through all my book covers, remembering my favourites and discussing books with friends, but my copies are just not on shelves for visitors to see.

    I do love peeking at other people’s bookshelves, though, so perhaps I’m depriving my friends of some good entertainment.

    • Graham Harman

      Wow Cheryl, I would not have the confidence to go digital. Remember what happened to the original moon-landing photos? The format became obsolete, because the computers that read photos changed, and they lost the lot. Me, I’m a hard copy person – firstly, because I’m worried that the internet is going to collapse (“things that can appear in 20 years can disappear in 20 days”); secondly, because the search facility is so sanitised and efficient – all you ever find with an electronic word search, is what you were looking for, whereas with a riffle through a hard copy, you find all sorts of interesting things that you were NOT looking for; thirdly, you can highlight, draw, underline, annotate and generally wear out a hard copy book, in a much more engaging way than you can with the Kindle notes app. All of which elicits the question: “what IS, a book?” Is it (a) an abstract idea (the words on Kindle in etherspace); (b) a precious object to adorn a shelf; or (c) a process, something you destroy whilst you are absorbing the author’s message? Me, I’m a “c”. I have disintegrated several copies of T. S. Eliot’s “Collected Poems” over my lifetime, for example. It was the only way I could understand them.

      • Susannah Fullerton

        I know that Cheryl got rid of her books, but I just couldn’t! Not only do I not have enough confidence in things digital, or feel myself competent enough in using them, but I just love the feel of books, the ease of finding the right page, the memories evoked by a stain or illustration, etc. And yes, you find things you were not looking for as well as things you were. Happy New Year, Graham.

  6. MJ

    We have books in every room in our apartment… but if we lived in a larger house (see previous comment) they might not be everywhere. Some years ago, though, I lived in a small house, with a nice eat in kitchen, and kept all the reference books there for easy consultation during meal time conversations. Now, of course, one googles to answer such questions.)

    I, too, immediately look at the books in someone’s living room if I can do it without being obvious.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, Google has eliminated the need for some reference books. I have books in almost every room in the house, except the bathroom but I carry one in there when I have a bath. Glad I am not the only book snoop!

  7. Marie Nesbitt

    When we moved house to a small unit , 7 years ago we said goodbye to all our fiction books but I kept history, travel and biographies It gives me a warm feeling to look at my books. I also love looking at other people’s choices of literature

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I could never get rid of my Jane Austens, or my LM Montgomerys, or ….. But even I admit that sometimes we have to do some pruning.

  8. Trevar Langlands

    Can. N you suggest
    I have a lot of non fiction books I need to cull.. Coffee table books, history, travel, general non fiction
    But what to do with them
    Hate the thought of them piled up in an open shop
    Unless displayed well
    Would like to even get something back on sine as some were pricey
    But if not possible just find a good home
    Trevar

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I wish I could help, but sadly there is very little market for second hand books. You can always give them to Vinnies or another charity.

      • Cathy Morrison

        Unfortunately some Vinnies no longer accept book donations. When I needed to cull my bookshelves I donated many books, reference and history as well as fiction to the NSW Corrective Services Academy. They are located in Epping/Eastwood. They stock all NSW prison libraries from here. They don’t accept Crime novels though!

        • Susannah Fullerton

          How intriguing that the prison service bans crime novels. But thanks for the helpful hint, Cathy. I’ll remember that next time I try to do a book cull.

  9. Robyn gooden

    I do think books enhance a room and also reflect the owner,s taste and personality. Like Susannah I examine book shelves in people’s, homes as one can learn about ones host. Robyn Gooden

    • Susannah Fullerton

      So glad I’m not the only book spy around! Happy New Year Robyn.

  10. Malvina

    I have books in several rooms in the house, but most of them are not in the main lounge so people don’t get to see them. There just isn’t enough room! To me a house isn’t a home unless there are books around. I love seeing ordered bookcases, but the ‘working bookcases’ which are stuffed full and untidy are an absolute delight. You know the books are read and loved and added to all the time! I have pruned a few classics now, popping not only single books on my Kindle, but also the entire collection of some authors. I love knowing I have a library on my Kindle. The book ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St John Mandel, an excellent read, does go into the horror of the world suddenly losing electricity…and so all tablets, Kindles, computers, etc., are disabled. But the book also travels over twenty years in time, and explains how Shakespeare and classical music are constants that can always be identified with because of the beauty of the music and the themes of the Bard, still relevant. An unusual read, I do recommend it.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That does sound an unusual and intriguing book. Will look out for it. Yes, I agree that while a tidy bookcase does probably look more aesthetically pleasing, one that is piled high and messy brings more joy because you know the books are read and loved. Happy New Year, Malvina, and happy reading.

  11. Miland

    I muat admit that I would be curious if I saw a bookshelf. But I wonder whether your guests felt that they would be prying if they looked more closely. May I ask if you invited them to look at the books, if they wished?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      No, I didn’t invite them to look, but the lounge is very small and they were only a few feet away from the bookshelves, so could hardly help but see what was on them.

  12. Loretta Mckee

    I would not have been able to contain myself Susannah at first sight of your impressive bookshelf. I too can’t help checking out a/anybookshelf. However, I now live in an apartment with very limited space. The books are piled up near my bed, and on a bookshelf that lines one entire length of the wall in the small walk-in wardrobe!! I also visit the library a lot to browse and borrow. I still buy books and after reading them, circulate them among friends who are very appreciative of my gesture! I love sharing what I’ve read, especially if it’s a good read.. and I have friends who do the same. Isn’t book talk the best!
    Happy new year to you and your family and may 2018 be another great year.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Book talk is absolutely and totally the best. And I agree about sharing books. I am always lending books and borrowing them from friends. Spreading the pelasure around is part of being a book addict.
      Happy New Year.

  13. Karen Camer

    I am a bit sneaky. I have two large bookcases in my lounge room that have keys. I am always happy for guests to have a look to see my collection, although go into panic mode if someone wants to borrow a book in case it comes back dog eared or stained (this has happened. For this reason, if I know someone is coming, I remove the keys and then if the dreaded question is asked, I conveniently can’t find the keys. Of course Susannah if you came to visit, the doors would be unlocked!!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Well I’m relieved I’d pass your test, but I do like your idea. It is terrible to lend a book and have it come back damaged, or worse still to then lose it forever.

  14. Heather

    I must admit that when I enter a home for the first time, see a bookshelf filled with books, my eyes stray towards their reading interests. That also goes for CDs and DVDs. Our house, in each room (apart from the toilet) has a book shelf filled with books. I love them and have read most of them. But I do admit there are some that I have put by to read at a later date!!! I also have many reference books which I feel are absolutely necessary for research. Plus I have iBooks and a Kindle…am I being rather excessive??? Books, music, food, wine and good films to me, are an essential part of life. Oh, and the majority of my friends and family are of the same ilk. It was the environment which I was brought up in and which I am entirely thankful for.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Not excessive at all. That’s just normal, in my view. Books, friends who talk about books, homes filled with books, food and wine – all totally essential!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      What else has he written? I’d love to read more of his books. Happy New Year Donna.

  15. I totally agree – a house is not a home without books on display. I confess the bookcase in my small living room is almost totally filled with travel books these days. I have accumulated a large range of Eyewitness Guides which are so beautifully produced, although too heavy to carry when travelling. My local library does a cull every so often, and often travel books are put on the discard shelves for people to buy for a couple of dollars.
    Fiction I rarely buy, preferring to borrow from the library.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Those Eyewitness Guides are such attractive books, but I agree about their weight. I am currently preparing for my literary tour of Scandinavia and the Eyewitness Guides are proving invaluable. They are never cheap, so it is nice to find culled copies from your library!

  16. Barbara

    It’s one of the first things I look for too. Where are the books? And I absolutely have to stand there and have a browse. My own bookshelves give me so much pleasure; the rearranging and organising and putting favourites together and having a ‘to read’ shelf. My books are part of who I am. They define me.

    When I see people reading on trains or in films I always want to know what they’re reading too.

    I refuse to have a kindle. I adore books too much 😊

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Just sitting and looking at your bookshelf is a pleasure – memories of when you read particular books, the rekindled desire to re-read something, thoughts of friends who gave you the books, etc. And like you, I always peer to see what people are reading on public transport.
      But I do have a kindle because it is wonderful for travel. I once ran out of books to read in Cuba and it was almost impossible to find a book in English to buy. It was such a terrifying thing to be without a book that I vowed it must never happen again, so I got a kindle which can be loaded with lots of free classics.

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