Friday, 1 April 2011


Are you the sort of person who checks out other people’s bookshelves?

(Do you feel an immediate affinity with those people who love the same books that you do?)

Earlier this week I had dinner in a lovely home. The sitting room had nearly all of the attributes of an attractive, cosy room: a wood-burning fire, soft sofas, interesting pictures, ancient (but good) carpets . . . but sadly, no bookshelves. I noticed it right away, and the absence somehow detracted.

Are you the type who believes that bookshelves are not only useful, but also beautiful?
(Furthermore, would you add this proviso: that the books must be obviously read and enjoyed . . . and not merely decorative?)

I’ve just counted:
Eight of the rooms in our house have bookshelves, and all of those shelves are overflowing.

In the recent de-cluttering drive, I managed (not without some pain and suffering) to take about five bags of books to the charity shop. Sadly, it didn’t make any visible difference to the crowded conditions as most of the discarded books had been stacked on the floor, hidden under the bed or crammed in my daughter’s closet. In our next house, I am hoping for entire walls of bookshelves.

(One commonality I’ve noticed about Oxford houses is that they tend to contain lots of books. Considering the ever-present temptation – there are a lot of bookstores in that small city -- I predict that an increase in my personal book collection is inevitable.)

There are public bookshelves and there are private bookshelves; some more so than others.
I don’t have what I think of as “properly” public bookshelves: nothing leather-bound or colour-coordinated; no first editions; no careful artistic groupings. Sadly, my bookshelves do not reach such lofty heights as would require a ladder. My “best” bookshelves do look more substantial, though. In their ranks you will see my nicer hardbacks, the lovely cloth-bound fairytales that I inherited from my father, the sturdy biographies and histories, and those books of a philosophical nature. My private bookshelves are junkier, and more various. Here lie the paperbacks, but also the most frequently read favourites.

Can a bookshelf be read like a palm, like a face, like a narrative of its own?

The pictured bookshelf is in my study – and in front of the shelf of enduring favourites (my Austens, Brontes, Colwins and Mitfords), you will find stacks of what I have read or written about recently.
There are also cards and curios, pictures and postcards . . . remembrances, really. When I think of the phrase “surrounded by my things,” I immediately think of books.

If you would like to share a glimpse of one of your bookshelves, please contact Malena of The Bookshelf Project.


Jeanne said...

Bee, I love your bookshelf! Yes, I feel a definite affinity with someone who has a bookshelf like yours. Like you, it is one of the first things I look for in a home. It says so much about the occupant. :)

I have one large Chinese bookshelf that is perfectly coordinated. So much so that when we moved, I took a picture so that I could set up the same way. It is pretty and I love looking at it. But that is not the 'real' bookcase...the 'real' one has a rhyme and reason that makes sense only to me. Similar to yours, I know where everything is and if someone moves something I get quite peevish :)

I am a great stacker...I love my stacks hidden under tables to the side of tables...everywhere.

So, you see, you mention books, bookshelves....and you have me hook, line and sinker!

Great post Bee...thank you :)

Jeanne xx

Christina said...

i am in love with your bookshelf. i really am. i only have one, would you believe that?
... there is one in my son's room and one in my daughters room.
so my books are in rows against the wall, baskets, where i can see them. a photo, might be scary. lol

Anonymous said...

I'm delurking to say that I enjoy your blog-- and that "yes" I am the sort of person who checks out other people's bookshelves.

Books are my friends. I worry about people who don't have any books in their homes. Don't they have any friends, I think to myself. How lonely their lives must be without books.

And for the record, we have three rooms with bookshelves, two rooms with a pile of books and 2/3 of a kitchen cupboard filled with cook books. Not quite your eight rooms, but we're working on it! :-)

steven said...

hello bee! i'm intrigued when i see someone has read a book i have but feel that shy intimacy that is similar to someone who went out with a girlfriend who i also went out with. where do we begin the conversation?! what can and can we not discuss? i love to see bookshelves filled with books that suggest a thoughtful and full-spectrum person who reads for pleasure and then something beyond that! steven

Sarah Laurence said...

Isn’t palm reading meant to predict your future? Bookshelves show your past. That must have been painful, bringing books to the charity shop. We have a wonderful independent bookstore in Portland (Longfellow) that sells both used and new books. I trade my rejects in for store credit.

For school (as a kid) we had a project to design our ideal bedroom. Mine was a circular room with a platform bed (it was the late 70’s) so that all the walls could be alternating floor to ceiling bookcases and windows. I’m not sure where I planned to store my clothes.

What I loved about our current house, when I first saw it, were the built in bookcases. We have bookcases in 9 (ie all) rooms. I still dream of putting in more. The halls are wasted space. I wonder how much this will change with e-books.

Maybe you shouldn’t judge a book by a cover, but judging a potential friend by their bookcases is fair game. I knew I’d become close to a new friend in Brunswick when she saw our living room and gushed over our built ins and had read the top book in one of the stacks on the coffee table.

There are also virtual bookshelves. Didn’t you and I first connect via Lionel Shriver? Happy reading, Bee!

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Oh, Bee, I'm totally feeling you with this one! We just recently did a remodel of our family room/den and my husband built built-in bookcases all around the room. I love them and the look of well-worn books adds a warmth to a room that nothing else can. One of my quandries lately in house hunting has been that so many homes don't have the many built-in bookcases that I'm used to and I'm in a bit of a panic. What will I do? I suppose my husband will have to build more! And my sad books will have to remain in books and piles until he manages to do so.

Do you find yourself searching for built-ins or enough wall space for your book shelves in your house hunting? I haven't begun to go through my books to see which not to take. Too painful yet. Will probably leave that for the last thing.

Anonymous said...

I have 4 small bookcases upstairs. They are all overflowing, with books piled on the floor and stacks everywhere. I do have a couple of places downstairs for books, but I usually read while I'm upstairs, so most of them are up here.

I never thought of it before, but I guess if someone didn't know me well and they visited my home, they may not realize that I'm a reader from what they see downstairs.

I would love to have floor to ceiling built-in book shelves and then a shelf that wraps around the whole house above the windows too. I live in a log house. ;)


Kitten's Lost Her Mittens said...

Yes, yes, yes, and yes! So agree with this post. I've actually been thinking of doing bookshelf posts of my own. Of the ten rooms in my house, 7 have bookshelves (most more than one). The only ones without bookshelves are the 2 bathrooms and the kitchen (it's tiny - the cookbooks are in the dining room). I've sort of tried to arrange by theme somewhat, but it's hard. And like you, I have no books purely for 'display.'

Jeni said...

what a wonderful picture of your books! Looks like mine :)

Merisi said...

Somewhere I have a framed, postcard size, business card of a book antiquarian: "A house without books is like a garden without flowers." Says it all, doesn't it?

My blog friend Sonia Mascaro some years ago collected images of bookshelves of about two dozen of her friends. here is the link to her posts at Leaves of Grass (I met her because I was looking for "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman, in his "Leaves of Grass" collection). I just looked at my shelves, pictured there, and I noticed that I have a few more tomes added since then. ;-)

Poshyarns said...

I already like you even more as a result of what I see on your bookshelf. I once had a friend with no bookshelves- she didn't read books, ever!? We haven't kept in touch which now that I think about it seems unsurprising. I have tried to cut down on books due to shelving shortfalls but their are so many that I just cannot part with , one l lovely part of book owning is being able to share your favourites with friends.

Gretel said...

I am afraid I tend to judge people by how many books they have - it is for me an instant indicator of whether I will have anything in common with them, especially if they have children, because I honestly consider it to be neglectful not to have even a small amount of books if you have children. A house with no books is anathema to me. I hope you pop over sometime before we move, we have books everywhere, literally, behind doors, on the floor, up the stairs, on shelves to the ceiling, stacked high and low. Could not live without them.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Bee

My mom was asking me the other day when was I going to buy a bookshelf for all my books. I have a small bookshelf in my bedroom--now I will need to get another one for my den area because I have books everywhere.

Take care and have a great weekend!

Tracy :)

Marcheline said...

Yes, I peek at other people's book shelves. And yes, I feel an affinity - or confusion, or laughter, depending on the contents.

I, too, am a victim of "not enough bookshelves". Bear and I both have boxes of books in our attic, where we can't even get at them... and the bookshelves we do have are cram-packed.

Great post!

elizabeth said...

How do you keep coming up with such stunning topics?!
Of course the first thing I snoop at are people's books....
I have horrid book envy.
Was at a drinks party the other night where the host had all the newest and glossiest books -- including "HIP HOTELS"..........

When I was 17, and had a mad crush on Neil Hobbs,
and he was coming to our house
what did I do? Not make myself look beautiful.....
no, I rearranged my bookshelf......

So much to say about books --except my shelves always lack MY MOST BELOVED BOOKS because they have been FORCED upon others ....who don't appreciate them and never return them..........
I fear I will never learn.

So touched to see a little sketch propped on your shelf....
Will post a photo of my depleted bookshelf on World Examining.
Sunny here at last.....but chilly still

Mac n' Janet said...

I always look at people's bookshelves it's a way of getting to know people.
We were house hunting one time, saw 20-30 houses and only one of them had bookshelves. Lots of tvs but few books, how sad.

Frances said...

My small apartment contains just about the maximum possible number of books on and off shelves. And, like the shelves in your photo, my bookshelves also contain pictures, cards, shells, pinecones, odd boxes, art supplies, well, surely you get the idea.

I wouldn't have it any other way!

Best wishes.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, this rings my bell. There is at least one bookshelf in every room of my house. Even the dining room has books lining the top of the walls at the ceiling. Guest room, office, sitting room, bedroom.... everywhere. I am a true reader of other's bookshelves as well. Yes, you can tell soooo much from them. I even turn magazines this way and that to read the titles on the shelves in featured houses!

Yours says wonderful things about you!

CashmereLibrarian said...

We have overstuffed bookshelves in every room in our house, books on the floor, and boxes of books in the basement. Since we live in a college town and most of my neighbors are professors, most of their homes look the same way! I hate homes with no books. And I hate homes with fake books (like people who aren't attorneys that have shelves full of leather bound, but useless law reporters--yes I'm talking to you Mary McDonald).
On another note, Bee, I love you study wall paper!

Eryl said...

I came via Elizabeth who linked this post on her blog. I fear I have floor to ceiling book cases in my study that I struggle to keep from overflowing. A pantry bursting with cookery and gardening books, and attic rooms stuffed with my son's books. But my sitting room is clutter free so goodness knows what new visitors think of us. I'm much more of a reader than a book lover and will be delighted when I can get a good e-reader and free my walls for paintings. That said, I have a few very beautiful books and first editions that I will keep on a floating shelf above my desk.

Tracy said...

YES to all of the above, Bee. ;o) Your bookshelves are beautiful... I love the soft green-gray...and that wallpaper. I could live in that nook. I feel an instant affinity with people who have books (especially LOTS of books), and even more so if tastes run similar to my won. What "worries" me more are the people who do not have any books are all in their home, or hardly any. Books add soul to a dwelling... Wonderful musings here... Happy Weekend ((HUGS))

ellen abbott said...

Oh, I always check out other people's book shelves. when we moved last year to the country house, we did a serious winnowing of our books. took many boxes to the library for their book sale/fund drive. I kept quite a few but I don't acquire books now like I used to. I rarely reread a book so now I just go to the library or borrow from my sister or daughter.

kristina said...

Oh yes the bookshelves are always the first thing I check out when visiting! And I have had a bit of a clear out and rearrangement since you saw mine...but then I ordered a few more books from Amazon...sigh...

K x

Cottage Garden said...

Ah Bee, I see a few books that grace my bookshelves too, namely To Kill a Mockingbird and I Capture the Castle.

A home is not a home without books or indeed bookshelves and I cannot help myself in checking out other people's!

Living in a very small house prompts me to regularly de-clutter and I have recently given up several bags of books but I have a core collection that I will keep forever. I am using the library more and more lately rather than buying new books, although I have an unstoppable weakness for the Persephone dove grey ... say no more.


Teresa O said...

Loved this post! I aspire to elegantly decorated bookshelves with doo-dads among the books, but unfortunately my books simply crowd out any superfluous chachka.

kristina said...

I agree with everything you said! a home needs books.

Marion Williams-Bennett said...

Love this post, too! We have books everywhere, piles on the floor, and the shelves, on the table. Somehow your shelf looks so much more beautiful than our piles!

I just found this site with I loved loved love (despite the name!) and immediately thought of you


julochka said...

i always judge people by their bookshelves. harshly. by the choices of the books on the shelves, not the actual shelves, those can be milk crates, for all i care. so i guess i'm saying that i judge them by their choice in books.

they don't have to be first editions or leather-bound, or matching or (god forbid) shelved in rainbow order, but they have to contain good books. intellectual books, classics, theory, history, something Literary. if there's too much dan brown or stephen king (not that those don't have their place - under the bed), forget it. shelves filled with those books don't count.

it's one thing that drives me crazy in this house, that so many of the books are still in boxes (and will be for awhile), tho' more and more sneak their way out, as i go digging for them and then end up beside the bed or the big chair in the living room.

Dick said...

My kind of bookshelves: immediate affinity!

Sadly, the vast majority of my thousands of books are in boxes in the brick outhouse awaiting the installation of a 12' x 12' shed in the garden as a library. Then I shall stack and stack...

Laguna Dirt said...

how funny! i always scope out what other people are reading (almost as revealing as what's in their medicine cabinets!) and even though i try not to be judgmental, i do size them up based upon the title on their shelves.

Relyn said...

OH, Beth! I loved, loved, adored this peek into your bookshelves. And I love this series. How wonderful. On your favorites shelves I saw some old friends and some new friends I am eager to meet. Yay!

Bloomsbury Bell said...

Your bookshelves are beautiful and with all the right books! I am so envious of your wallpaper as well - it is perfect, I have loved it forever but sadly it is my twitter background rather than a real background in my house!

If I go into a person's house and there are no bookshelves I immediately feel strange. It's unnatural!