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It seems amazing that, while in the past we have have discussed bookshelves as well as the academic dust that can collect in the house, we have never broached the subject of what the shelves themselves are for. Two weeks ago, that very question was broached by Matt Selman in an absurd post that is also an obvious lie; it was followed by the more honest Ezra Klein, Scott McLemee, and Caleb Crain. My house is not so constrained as McLemee’s, where “the ‘prime directive’ is that there should not be any books on the floor,” but I generally avoid storing them there anyway and instead use the shelves themselves as overflow. Were I ever to have visitors, the story the shelves would tell is one of eclectic abundance:

However, that story would be incomplete. If I measured my library by the books I have read, it would be slight in relation to the whole. Several years ago I acquired a goodly number of my books free-of-charge. Even after having abandoned a half-dozen boxes of them on the sidewalk, I still cart a large number with me when I move. After all, they were free; I cannot abandon that sort of fortune entirely. That I continue to hold onto them is a testament to the fact that, for the most part, I want to read them, but I have not gotten to them yet and in the near and distant future, only have halfhearted plans to get there. My bookshelves are not a representation of the kind of person I want to be seen as; they are storage for all the persons I might someday become.

But the most important role my bookshelves play is irrelevant to the books that go on them. Bookshelves, it turns out, are fine places to hide from a vacuum cleaner:



glad to see you have kalpa imperial on your shelves and i wish i had the collected, hardback justice rather than just the paperback selected justice.

K gave me the Collected for my birthday the year it was released.

In that same photo, The Sacred Fount was a hand-me-down from Laura after she cleaned out her mother’s shelves.

is that a first edition?

Do you mean the James? No.

yes, the james… i presume the justice is.

and how could it be a first edition, as it would be rather more ornately, more turn of the century bound

That would depend on who did the binding.


1: The reason I have never taken to adding my books to things like Shelfari is that I really do not want to go to the trouble of keying in them in. I would much rather take photos of them all and leave it at that.

(For the photos I would never go so far, however, as to arrange the books by color, though.)

I don’t think The Wocket in My Pocket should count as a book you have read.

you have no idea how many times in the last three years I have read that book!!!!

But do you really read it, or do you just mouth the words?

Also: “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a short story that was collected as part of The Piazza Tales. To call it a “book” is really stretching the definition of book, don’t you think?

yes, indeed, but i am simply going by the books that they have listed… if they list it as a book, i put it.

though, i might take bartleby off and i might take the donaldson off, as i read the unbeliever series in college and they weren’t my books… so, i don’t own them currently

All this makes me wonder if music and movies have different caches than books do. I think that’s obvious, actually, but I’m not sure why. I regularly buy, and store for long periods of time, books that I haven’t read; and occasionally I will buy music I haven’t listened to aside from what I may have heard on the radio or some other place, but I will listen to it almost immediately; but I never buy a movie I haven’t already seen at least once, and if I don’t like it, I get rid of it.

Some of this has to do with differences in genre (ie, the different time commitments involved with each form) and some cultural capital, I suppose, but I’m not exactly clear about how those two things get worked out in my consumption practices.

In that vein, although I did it when I was in college, I no longer buy movies at all because I do not generally watch them over and again like I used to, and I figure I can spare a few dollars at Blockbuster if need be.

In fact, the only DVDs our house covets are complete sets of Buffy and Angel.

“The great mind needs no book on his shelf, other than to remind him where he need not go. Books, like stepping stones, mark out paths already tried and tred.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Welcome McFawn! Alas, even Emerson had his shelves filled.