Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Books for show

I noticed a shelf of new books hadn't been in the kitchen when I was there before. I saw they was The Complete Works of Charles Dickens. 'Have you read all those?' I said. He said he hadn't bought them to read: he had seen them advertised in a newspaper, and thought would look nice on his wall. -- The Book of Ebenezer LePage by G.B. Edwards

I try to avoid judging people by the covers of their books, but it can be a hard temptation to resist. Whenever I am in another person's home, I always seem to gravitate to any bookshelves that may be in sight. Books often say something about their owners.

Parents may have children's books and not much else. Some people have only a few of their college textbooks,  suggesting that they haven't opened a book since. Others have a lot of Chicken Soup for the Soul books or books focused on a particular subject of interest, such as World War II or wildflowers. Many people have nothing but bestsellers on their shelves, suggesting that they read only what everybody else is reading. Older people often have bestsellers from 20, 30 or even 50 years ago.

A number of years ago I served on a committee charged with finding a new pastor for our church, and I found myself in the home of one of our candidates. The books in his living room, which for all I knew at the time could have belonged to his wife, were impressive, suggesting a person with broad tastes in reading. We weren't disappointed when we chose him as our pastor.

Least impressive are those books which seem to exist only for display. Like the collection of Charles Dickens books owned by the character in the G.B. Edwards novel, they are there to impress visitors. They are there as a decorating device, like wallpaper or a vase of flowers.

The May issue of National Geographic Traveler contains a photograph of the book-lined café in the Drake Hotel in Toronto. Except for a few stray books that some guest might actually want to read, such as World's Best Science Fiction, most of books on the shelves seem to be multi-volume sets selected only because they look nice and take up a lot of room. It's hard to imagine any visitor to the café actually taking down one of these reference books to read. To be read is obviously not why they are there.

The books in the living rooms of some homes are much like this. They are clearly there for show. It seems unlikely that anyone has ever read them or ever will.

In his book Biblioholism, Tom Raabe satirizes those who buy books only to impress others, to give visitors the impression they have actually read them. Rather than buying sets of books or classics in expensive editions, he suggests taking the trouble to acquire books that will make the right impression. He advises the following:

"A  volume or two by authors who have only one name (Thucycdides, Epictetus, Juvenal, etc.)

"Books with impressive titles that give onlookers the feeling that if they don't recognize the title, they at least should "Leviathan, Critique of Pure Reason, The Varieties of Religious Experience, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, etc.).

"A book or two that mark you as your own thinker, cut apart from the herd (something by a little-known Bulgarian novelist, or the musings of some obscure Portuguese poet -- in Portuguese).

"A couple of books that most people have heard of, but don't have the guts to tackle (Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, etc.).

"A few Viking Contemporaries or other design paperbacks to announce one's place on the cutting edge of fiction."

I hate to admit it, but if I saw this selection of books displayed in your living room, I would be impressed. Of course, I would be more impressed if I saw you actually reading a book, any book.

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