I was twenty, a student at university, when I it first occurred to me that books provided the best entrée to another person’s essence. Not their clothes nor their hobbies, not their family and friends, not even their conversation. But their library.
A particular incident brought this home to me. Together with my boyfriend of the time, I was visiting one of his friends. E was a girl my own age. She lived in her parents’ house, a huge place, along with her two brothers. Although I had met her before, I knew her best by reputation. She was enormously clever, and warm and generous as well. Embraced by her peers, she had been captain in her final year of school, and her popularity had accompanied her to university. This was the sort of child of which any parent would be proud, although, according to my boyfriend, her parents would have preferred their daughter to have less in the way of brains and a good deal more when it came to beauty. Indeed, her parents favoured their plodding, predictable sons over their intelligent, not-pretty-enough daughter.
That house, it was a mansion. I’d never known anything like it. I wanted to look over the whole place, explore it room by room. However, the good manners that had been drilled into my generation made such an adventure impossible. Although, as it happened, I did manage to see quite a lot of it. E’s bedroom was on the upper storey at the back of the house; we needed to walk many passages past many rooms to get to it. I saw chintz and brocade, occasional tables and objects, large nondescript paintings, fresh flowers in vases. The overall impression was of beige and gold spaciousness. Later when we went downstairs to the kitchen for coffee I saw more beige and brocade. There was leather in this part of the house too, and the timber of cupboards and shelves had been blanched of their woodiness with a pale limed finish.
So many rooms, yet it was difficult to read the inhabitants through this house. Obviously they were rich, and they were also mindful of surface appearances, but as for anything more I could not say. It was only afterwards that I realised what had been missing. Except for E’s room, there were no books in the house. Not in the hallways, not in the living rooms I passed. How to know someone without knowing what they read? And it was then I realised that for years I’d been reading people’s hearts and minds unconsciously through the books they owned. Without books to guide me, E’s family might have been cardboard cut-outs.
In my adolescence I hid my favourite books: too private to be seen, too embarrassing if they were, my best books would expose more of me than I could bear. Later, after I left school and started a life of my own choosing, I would often find myself in strange rooms in shared houses with people I hardly knew, and I would seek respite from the strains of interaction by loitering beside the makeshift bookcases – long boards with pylons of bricks at each end – learning about the person in whose room I found myself. I would, in those far-off days, peer at the spines of books surreptitiously. I knew I was spying, I knew I was glimpsing a private life. It was like peeping through a keyhole or fumbling around in someone’s underwear drawer. But at the same time there was the delight when I found books that I’d read, providing an immediate connection to this new friend, and a range of possible conversations. And I’d turn back to the room, far less jittery and greatly relieved.
As the years have passed, I’ve become less covert about my interest in personal libraries. I read the spines of books more avidly than the faces of people. Faces wear masks, books don’t – although I’m well aware that books displayed do not necessarily mean books read.
I once had a friend who was reading Noam Chomsky – two large volumes of his weighty, linguistic writings. My friend’s Chomskys lived on the coffee table in her living room, within easy reach. When she went on holiday, her Chomskys went with her. Two years later, the books were still in easy reach and the bookmarks had not progressed more than a page or two.
I am also aware that books read but not consistent with an individual’s public persona are often hidden. Like the philosopher who hides her true crime books, or the historian who always has a romance on the go, or the left-leaning liberal with a nostalgic fondness for Ayn Rand’s characters. Books on show may not be an accurate portrayal of an individual’s reading habits, but the fact remains that those books that are displayed reflect how the reader wants to be regarded, what s/he regards as important, even if those goals have not been attained.
Seen in this way, personal libraries function rather like Facebook postings.
In both cases we display snippets about ourselves that will portray the person we want to make public: those aspects of ourselves we want to emphasize and share with others. The process of selection may not be the same, and the information revealed may be qualitatively different, but personal libraries, revealing as they do private thoughts and beliefs and aspirations, mimic Facebook’s exposure of an individual’s private life.
And yet, despite the similarities, I want to believe that my quiet appraisal of a person’s library, my thoughts and musings, the curiosity and the ensuing connecting are different from the frenetic ‘I’m here’ ‘Look at what I’m doing’ ‘Look at who I’m doing it with’ postings on social media sites. I want to believe that personal libraries stop people, turn them inwards, to thoughts and nuance in a way not possible with the spontaneous, immediate, abbreviated communications that jostle for attention on social media sites.
Over coffee the other day, a friend told me that most of her reading now is done in e-format. As a result she rarely buys print edition books and, in fact, has culled her library to 150 meaningful books. These consist of books from her childhood, others from her beloved deceased mother, others still from past lovers and close friends, plus a handful of favourites. It’s a motley collection, and impossible to glean the essence of my friend from it. Sentiment has distorted identity in her choice of books. And again, I am reminded of Facebook, but in this instance the differences between my friend’s abbreviated personal library and the often sentimental, wince-producing postings that appear on Facebook seem minimal.
In New York city, my friend, C, is in the process of selling his parents’ apartment. It’s located on the Upper East Side in a block with a resident committee with veto over who can buy into the building. The realtor looked over the apartment. The ageing, out-moded kitchen could remain unchanged, he said, but the books, and he waved a careless hand to take in the entire apartment, the books would have to go. Books suggested dust and the past, an impression that would discourage the hip young Wall Street types the realtor was hoping to attract.
It’s all surface these days: the books for display, the displays without books, Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media sites. But as paper formats give way to e-books, and social media encroaches on every waking hour, we are losing more than just an artefact with the demise of the personal library, we are losing what was once a readily available opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we value.