Show me your books …

by Henry Farrell on April 17, 2020

was once a demand made by Kieran on Chatroulette (remember Chatroulette?), but is now becoming an amateur spectator sport, as people scope out other people’s bookshelves on Zoom, and some of those other people in turn likely artfully arrange their books so as to present the best possible image of their serious or not-so-serious intellectual life. The Twitter commentary on this Pete Buttigeig bookshelf has already started.

For me, the interesting bit was not the volumes of Dragonball, or the Piketty in and of itself, so much as the way in which Piketty and a few issues of N+1 bracketted a copy of Juan Zarate’s decidedly non-leftwing book on US financial power, Treasury’s War. Perhaps the message that was intended to be conveyed was of how a leftwing attack on the power of capital and global inequality might be organized around the awesome power of the US over the global financial system. Or, perhaps, that’s just me.

Either which way, one way to keep some of us occupied is to scope out each other’s bookshelves. Here’s mine (as the disorder suggests, I haven’t artfully rearranged it at all, though I have chosen the bookshelf in our house with the greatest concentration of intellectually ‘serious’ books).

Feel free to snoop, and to disparage my taste. Feel just as free to include links to photos of your own bookshelves in comments (it looks as though img src is disabled in CT comments, but links should work fine).



Joseph Blackman 04.17.20 at 6:53 pm

Lol @ all the bicycles and the book “road bike maintenance”.


steven t johnson 04.17.20 at 8:25 pm

There’s a lot of homophobia in the obsession with Buttigieg. The barely concealed crudity of it is rather disgusting. The Root even dogwhistled a queerbashing! At any rate, as the son of a prominent Marx revisionist,* it is entirely expected he would believe devoutly in capitalism. It would be surprising if he were a lefty. The terrifying thing for people paying attention is that his open claim to want to pack the Supreme Court put his on the political left of the Democratic Party. This is not in any way a favorable remark on Buttigieg.

In lieu of pictures, one stack sitting on my piano bench? Diaconis, Ten Great Ideas About Chance; Popul Vuh; Fischer, Stalin and German Communism; Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, a savage if inadvertent attack on philosophy and the entire Middle Ages; Geoffrey Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain; Xenophon, The Persian Expedition; Aristotle, The Politics; Livy, The War with Hannibal; The Philip K. Dick Reader; Turgenev, Fathers and Sons; Gordimer, None to Accompany Me, though I’ve never truly loved anything by her but Burger’s Daughter; George, Memoirs of Cleopatra; most exciting of all, The Thorne Smith Three-Decker.

The basis of choice is first and foremost price. The Penguins go cheap at a library sale! The most expensive was the Thorne Smith.


steven t johnson 04.17.20 at 8:28 pm

Pardon, please: *Safely embalming people who lost as ideal socialists is a time-honored strategy for the very high-brown anticommunists. They don’t explicitly say the greatest virtue is not actually overthrowing capitalism anywhere, though.


Jacob Christensen 04.17.20 at 9:38 pm

I’m not sure if the filter likes links and if linking to private photos on Flickr (remember Flickr?) works, but here’s the library. Yes, marrying a librarian is still one of my unfulfilled life goals And no, I still haven’t got around to read the Mandelson book…

The least messy view
The Wall of Serious Books
Yes, that’s the Danish edition of Knausgård in there. Only took me two years to get through
Dunno: I just three them in there and spend a couple of hours when I’m searching for a novel or something


Chris Bertram 04.17.20 at 10:24 pm

All but 3 of the books on Buttigieg’s political theory shelf now identified:


novakant 04.18.20 at 8:01 am

Lol @ all the bicycles and the book “road bike maintenance”.

That’s the first thing that stuck out for me as well :)


Jake Gibson 04.18.20 at 12:40 pm

I would sit in front of my bookshelf with all the Star Trek and Babylon 5 DVDs.


oldster 04.18.20 at 1:27 pm

“Here’s mine (as the disorder suggests, I haven’t artfully rearranged it at all,”

Right, and this is me just out of bed with no make-up and some old clothes I threw on. It’s not my fault that I’m so effortlessly chic — some of us just look good en deshabille.

“A sweet disorder in the dress/ kindles in clothes a wantonness; a bold disorder in the shelves/ blazons our readerly ideal selves.”


Matt McKeon 04.18.20 at 2:20 pm

My bookshelves are a jumble of the different members of my family’s taste in reading. Plus since one of us is a kindergarten teacher a remarkable number of “Blueberries for Sal,” “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel” etc. When I have to remote teach, I am conscious of what the kids can see, and make it just a wall or something.


James 04.18.20 at 2:43 pm

Bad time for us ebook readers. Last time I counted I had about a thousand but nobody can see ’em.


mtraven 04.18.20 at 2:44 pm

Two copies of Little, Big…don’t know about you but when I find myself acquiring books I already have I start to worry about encroaching brain worms. Just yesterday found I had two of If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.


hix 04.18.20 at 7:06 pm

Hum, my books are in the basement. Don´t think i did read any of the fiction books twice, but they still sit there. The re use rate of my academic ones is also quite limited (now this an aspect that is obviously different for people working at a University). It´s astonishing how many books one ends up collecting even as a primary library and ebook reader. The rational thing would have been to sell or donate most a long time ago. Got to think most peoples Ikea bookshelfs in the background of interviews these days are just decoration.


Doug 04.18.20 at 9:06 pm

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell!

That’s the only one I can distinguish at this distance, without changing devices and/or embiggening.


Tooth Brusher 04.19.20 at 4:42 am

I’m a bit ashamed of my bookshelves. When I ran out of space & money for books, I started mainly reading things I could find for free online. I still have too many books but the books are very out of date and random. If I got rid of all of them I could free up space but some of these have sentimental value. This is another reason for not buying books if you are the kind of person who tends to get attached to objects.


John Quiggin 04.19.20 at 5:16 am

This is great fun, like going to open houses to inspect other people’s possessions. But as a general rule, we should all be using backgrounds rather than showing our living spaces and implicitly pressuring others to do likewise.


Maria 04.19.20 at 10:40 am

Henry always has at least two copies of Little, Big on hand. One of them is to press into the hands of visitors who’ve not yet had the life-changing pleasure of it.


Maria 04.19.20 at 10:41 am

Doug, I’ve heard a new book by Susannah Clarke is to come out this summer. Don’t know if that timing’s been affected by the virus etc. but it’s one to watch out for!


oldster 04.19.20 at 12:39 pm

JQ @ 15 —

That sounds right, since one’s interior decoration can indicate wealth, poverty, class, and so on. It’s not polite to oblige me to show you my scruffy bed-sit. So we can both pretend to be on white-sand beaches.

But I am on the poor side of a different wealth divide: my computer is too feeble to support backgrounds. When I try, I get a message saying that my microprocessor is too slow.

So it’s the tatty bed-sit after all! Luckily, I am visiting only friends and family in any case.


cwalken 04.19.20 at 3:54 pm

The artist Lisa Auerbach was way ahead of this trend:


Henry 04.19.20 at 8:20 pm

What Maria says – I think I have four copies of Little, Big in different parts of the house at the moment. And the bike maintenance book presents a thoroughly misleading impression (indeed, if you’d asked me, I’d have sworn that I gave it away). When I got my bike some years ago, I wanted to figure out how it all worked in a temporary fit of enthusiasm, and be able to maintain it properly. I wish I could even say that it didn’t last. It didn’t in fact start …


Henry 04.19.20 at 8:22 pm

oldster – that’s a lovely adaptation, but I plead innocent of all such artifice (and indeed my spouse is mildly grumpy that I’ve revealed the disorderly nature of our shelves to all the world).


NomadUK 04.20.20 at 1:12 am

As always, Star Trek has something to say on the subject.


Dr. Hilarius 04.20.20 at 4:42 am

As a young man I fell into bad company, book sellers, book scouts, and bibliophiles. Thirty years ago I married an academic who likes to read mysteries. The result is many bookcases. Mine are poorly organized, more by size than by subject or author. Karen’s are carefully organized by author. Books double and even triple shelved. What to show? One of the organized cases or the chaos of the basement? Which false impression do I want to leave?


SeanP 04.20.20 at 7:47 am

In the middle of a zoom yoga class the other day, my lunge brought these books into my eyeline. My chakras have been out of whack ever since.


Matt 04.20.20 at 10:44 am

As it happens, none of my computers face towards my book shelves, so even if I had video on (I’m more likely to do audio only, when I can) would my books show. But, in any case, here’s the whole collection: The books themselves are mostly nicely arranged, at least to my mind, though there are a lot of random papers and the like stacked on top of them these days.


hix 04.20.20 at 2:43 pm
Typewriter and police uniform are not mine, i decided to show the entire authenitic chaos ^^.


RW Force 04.20.20 at 5:38 pm


Cian 04.20.20 at 9:17 pm

I got rid of a ton before moving to the US. Kind of wish I got rid of more now. The worst are the books you wish you had read, but which are probably too dated to bother reading now…

E-Readers are a blessing.


Cian 04.20.20 at 9:25 pm

There’s a lot of homophobia in the obsession with Buttigieg.

Maybe. I just find it funny that a mayor of an insignificant town decided to run for president and we’re all still taking this ridiculous man seriously.


Dr. Hilarius 04.20.20 at 10:02 pm

OK, here’s one of the more coherent and interesting book cases. Barrister/lawyer book cases are wonderful if you have cats.


Claire 04.20.20 at 11:52 pm

I’m quite cheered to see that we have a lot of books in common, mostly fiction, including some of my favorites (Banks, McDonald) and some less common ones, too.

I’m totally one of those people who judges others by their books—if I’m visiting someone’s house or office for the first time, I’ll check out their books, and I do the same when I see photos or interviews with books in the background (okay, fictional TV shoes/movies, too). Bookshelves are a great way to get some instant insight into someone’s personality and give you a sense of your common interests., and, of course, not having any books or only having boring books is also meaningful.

E-books being invisible both means that you can’t show them off and that you can easily forget that you have them. On the other hand, it’s lots easier to store them when you have a tiny house.


NomadUK 04.21.20 at 1:25 pm

Cian@28: This is precisely my situation. I must have dumped 20 boxes of books on Oxfam when I moved, books I had carted back and forth across one continent for years and across an ocean once, but just couldn’t deal with transporting yet again. And I now have one bookcase filled with the remnants, whose purpose remains unclear to me, except as nostalgia: My entire Larry Niven/Clarke/Asimov collections! Physics textbooks! Cosmos! Etc.

I now have over 400 books in my Kindle, and have no idea when I will be able to read them all. As Kirk said, ‘I like ’em fine, but a computer takes less space.’


Blutowski 04.21.20 at 3:44 pm

At last, a downside to Kindle: no way to mount a vanity display.


steven t johnson 04.21.20 at 5:03 pm

Cian@29 “Maybe. I just find it funny that a mayor of an insignificant town decided to run for president and we’re all still taking this ridiculous man seriously.”

Seems to me if you really believed this, the mere existence of the original thread and the post publicizing it (with hints of fraud added,) is hard to justify by anything except an insatiable need to vilify Buttigieg. You claim it’s because he wasn’t a big shot enough, and was ridiculous unlike a billionaire maybe. Or from a worthless pile of people called South Bend entirely unlike New York City maybe. Or maybe you just really had to see someone like Buttigieg as so much more ridiculous and lacking as gravitas than anyone else in Trump’s America.

But I think you would have been more believable claiming to resent Buttigieg for finishing off Warren and nearly getting Biden too. Or maybe for your fear of tyranny posed by his shameless court-packing scheme.

What’s wrong with Buttigieg is what’s wrong with all the candidates, they all believe in capitalism, supposedly reformed to be fair. Everything else, especially complaints about his sheer effrontery in daring to run, are not to be taken at face value.


Neville Morley 04.21.20 at 7:22 pm

I think I need to recalibrate our bookcases to create a better impression.


J-D 04.21.20 at 11:46 pm

I just find it funny that a mayor of an insignificant town decided to run for president and we’re all still taking this ridiculous man seriously.

What next, a reality television star for President?


bad Jim 04.22.20 at 5:04 am

I have quite a large library, the product of both my and my father’s insatiable appetite. Several thousand volumes, mostly fiction of variable merit. The collection was ruthlessly pruned after my mother had a local craftsman replace the original ramshackle shelves with something more decorous, reducing the shelf space available. A few years ago I eliminated several of my father’s favorite authors, to no discernible effect; there are still horizontal stacks obscuring the ones standing at attention.

Some years ago we hosted a political gathering at which one of the attendees was a local physics professor who is also a highly esteemed science fiction author. When the meeting was done he browsed the shelves from top to bottom, left to right. After he left I had to check: yes, his books were there, including hard-bound copies. Exhale. Why worry? Much of my science fiction is in the bookcases in the bedrooms or on the shelves of my siblings or their children, or in the attic.


David J. Littleboy 04.22.20 at 7:23 am

Was going through some old negatives: This is what I was reading around 1971. (The neg was horribly underexposed, so the image is pretty funky.)

(If you click “original” at the bottom, you can scroll around and read the titles.)


Doug 04.22.20 at 10:24 am

Maria @17: Thank you for the timely reminder of good news!


Cian 04.22.20 at 12:41 pm

JD: What next, a reality television star for President?

Or a pro-wrestler. I’m sure we can find all kinds of examples of people who shouldn’t be president, including the current incumbent.


J-D 04.22.20 at 11:51 pm

I’m sure we can find all kinds of examples of people who shouldn’t be president, including the current incumbent.

That’s roughly my point. Warren Harding shouldn’t have been President, but unfortunately that’s not a sufficient basis for dismissing as not serious the prospect of somebody like Warren Harding becoming President.


Forrest Leeson 04.23.20 at 1:59 am

(quietly assumes the Pratchett and Lem are in another bookcase)


Don Babwin 04.23.20 at 6:48 pm

My name is Don Babwin. I am a reporter at the Associated Press. I am interested in speaking with people who have become really interested in the books behind all the people on news shows who are appearing from their homes during the coronavirus crisis. If there an anyone you know of who fits the bill please send them my phone number. it is 312 683 6897.Thank you

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