The Bookshelves of Others


Photograph of an old private library.I remember the bookshelf of my childhood home as very imposing and very maroon. It had the entire leather-bound World Book Encyclopedia collection, and I spent many afternoons cross-legged with one of the heavy volumes on my lap, reading entries on “China” or “homeostasis.” As I got older, so did the family bookshelf. It absorbed our various personalities. Dad: The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Mom: White Mughals, Eckhart Tolle. Sister: Bergdorf Blondes, an economics textbook. Brother: Catcher in the Rye, the Murakami books I gave for him for Christmas. All our required school reading, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul III, books I loved at some point but can’t overlook the sexism of now.

It has character, sure, but is composed of mostly castaway books that have served their purpose, rather than of books to be cherished and revisited–I took those with me. There is nothing left to discover in the family bookshelf except emotional intel about the family member that acquired each book, and even that is just guesswork. How did mom react to this scene in this Jhumpa Lahiri short story? Who took that quiz on whether they are emotionally ready to lose weight in the Eat/Delete dieting manual?

Maybe every bookshelf feels this way to the person that owns it: stale–nothing left to see here, folks. But to the person who sees someone else’s bookshelf for the first time, it is a library of the owner’s soul.

In that vein, I encourage anyone looking for new, not-creepily-suggested-by-Amazon-because-algorithms-know-everything-about-you books to read in 2017 to search their friends’ or families’ bookshelves first. Here are some books I took from others’ bookshelves (and liked):

The Reader
Bernard Schlink
Vintage Books

I borrowed this book on a Fourth of July celebration a few years ago, from my parents’ friends who lived in upstate New York. They were foreign dignitaries from Nepal, and their bookshelf showed it. The shelf was neatly displayed in their sitting room, the books behind sliding glass doors. Most of them were about major historical events, usually violent genocides, that the average American might be unaware of, like the breaking up of Yugoslavia or the India-Pakistan partition. The couple had just given birth to a newborn daughter, and I assumed her messy, torn cardboard books were kept upstairs.

I picked up The Reader because I had seen the movie a few months back, and did not think to read the book. Of course it was better when read, given the fact that the book is about reading and illiteracy. The story, about old lovers who reconnect when one of them teaches the other how to read via prison correspondence, juxtaposed reading for pleasure against reading for necessity, and the shame that comes with the latter. It is a World War II narrative, and so fit in with the general ethos of the shelf. When we were all leaving, our host had urged me to take my time with the book, but to please return it eventually. The shelf was a carefully curated museum exhibit, and one painting couldn’t be on loan for too long.

Stephanie Danler
Penguin Random House

I picked up this book while staying with my friend at her apartment in Tokyo, where she had been living at the time. I would soon leave Tokyo to explore Osaka and Kyoto on my own, and, for some reason, thought it was a good idea to take a book about waiting tables in Manhattan with me for pleasure reading. I spent one rainy night in Kyoto sitting in the coffin-sized pod of my hostel room after an indulgent sushi dinner, reacting almost sensually to Danler’s descriptions of food and relating, perhaps too acutely, to the feeling of being an outsider, unable to connect with the starry-eyed young travelers in the hostel bar downstairs. The night was young for them, and middle-aged for me, but my book was so engaging I forgot about my lonesome situation altogether.

I put Sweetbitter exactly where I’d gotten it when I returned to my friend’s apartment–among her impressive collection of books about food that are not cookbooks. Many of the books on her shelves had bookmarks or receipts from the Strand and other bookshops in America tucked in between their pages. My friend, who is originally from Japan, had emigrated to New Jersey as a child, but had been living in Tokyo for a year, working as a lawyer and hating it. Reading about food gave us a vocabulary, in both ingredients and emotions, for our lovely-but-lonely dining experiences. Being an outsider who knew the difference between oshi– and kakinoha-style sushi felt better than simply being an outsider.

The Cloud of Unknowing
Author Unknown

I never thought I would find my nose in a book about late fourteenth-century Christian mysticism, let alone while under the coconut trees of Chennai, India, where my uncle lives. It’s not exactly a beach read. His bookshelf is interesting: you can’t see what books are in it unless you open them and look for their original softcovers. He has them bound, so all the spines are blank, and the books are protected from the wear-and-tear of tropical weather and frequent use. This book was one of the few that were not bound, but maybe it should have been: the pages were damp and delicate and they had faded from white to different shades of brown, not unlike the walls of an old chapel.

I picked it up for the simple reason that it was short. Though sermon-like in tone, with many warnings to readers who aren’t mature enough to handle this level of connection with the “Almighty God,” the book advocates sinning. “I readily grant that for habitual sinners like myself it is both essential and effective to be humbled by the recollection of one’s wretchedness,” writes the unknown author, who reminded me of Oscar Wilde. They turn their nose at “the comparative innocents, who have never sinned . . . deliberately, but only through weakness and ignorance.” Sin with deliberation: that’s advice I can follow.

The ultimate lesson of the book is to rely less on knowledge and more on instinct, to be comfortable with not knowing what lies ahead—in a book or life in general—and to be open to surprises.