Judging a bookshelf by its covers

A few weeks ago our power went out. It had been happening during bad weather all winter, usually for just a few minutes. This time it lasted hours. Once it got down to 58 degrees we decided to head over to my brother-in-law’s for some heat and electricity.

After much fussing and crying I got the baby to sleep in their bed, which means I had thirty minutes of freedom on my hands. Yes, the baby only sleeps on his own for thirty minutes. Aren’t kids fun? I hadn’t thought to bring a book with me and my phone was in with the baby playing white noise. I was almost frantic to do something without a baby in my arms. After looking through the books in the living room and not finding anything that grabbed my attention I started snooping around in my niece’s room. She’s twenty and has a mix of young adult titles and classics. I chose Ethan Frome and had twenty-five blissful minutes reading about a winter much colder and snowier than ours.

Perusing the family books and my niece’s personal collection made me think about my collection. My collection of book is about half science fiction/fantasy. There are equal parts mystery and young adult. My only horror is Stephen King. If you were to judge me by my books you would think I’m well-read and intelligent. This is because I also own a couple dozen classics and a handful of nonfiction science books. Working at a bookstore opened me up to owning more books than your average person. Because I was surrounded by such tempting titles I bought a lot. But, as you know from my New Year’s Resolutions, I haven’t read a lot of them.

I tend to buy books for a far more sophisticated and intellectual person than I really am. I have Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories, United States Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and DNA by James Watson (of Watson and Crick). The O’Connor I bought because a coworker recommended it and I wanted to look smart; I use the Vidal book to press flowers. Catch-22 was a book club book I never finished (aka barely started) and DNA makes me feel like I’m still a little bit of a scientist.

I buy books for the person I want to be.

Given a chance to read a book while my husband bought groceries with the baby, I sat down in our grocery superstore’s book section and read the first few chapters of the new Janet Evanovich book, Notorious Nineteen. Spoiler alert: Stephanie’s car explodes in the first few pages. Talk about lowbrow. At home I’m reading Xenocide by Orson Scott Card, a book I practically have memorized, part of the Ender saga. I borrowed Ethan Frome from my niece but I haven’t touched it since. I liked it. I find it very interesting, well written, and captivating. I have a strong feeling that I will be returning it unfinished.

My niece has read it. She even recommended the follow up, written by another author, about Ethan Frome’s wife, aptly titled Zeena. She has read most of the books on her shelves. They aren’t too wide in range, like mine are. They look like they all belong to the same person. Her books show where she came from, literarily, and where she is going. My books might tell where I’m going, if only I made the move to read them and actually head there.

All of these unread intellectual books do look very nice on my bookshelves. They grace my piano and line the mantle of our fireplace. I organize them a little by genre. Mostly how they look the prettiest. There are vases, candles, and other knick-knacks thrown in to decorate. I dust them and shift them around, but I don’t read them.

My husband’s books are more honest than mine, as well. He has books on brewing beer, installing car stereos, Windows servers, and whatever CCENT/CCNA ICND1 is. He had a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that he read in high school. These are his true interests. He uses the nerd books regularly and plans to brew beer this summer. While I on the other hand will probably not ever delve into the world of DNA structure analysis.

When I was working at the bookstore, I definitely judged customers by the books they bought. Most memorable was the woman who bought Fifty Shades of Grey and an Amish inspirational fiction book. Those did not belong in the same bag. But then again, neither do The Canon by Natalie Angier and The Other Boleyn Girl, which I have stacked on top of each other. I should probably judge people less harshly. Something about glass houses and throwing stones comes to mind.

Perhaps I should also judge myself less harshly. My books show that I am trying to grow as a person, as a reader. I want to read all the classics. I want to read histories and memoirs. I like to read mysteries and horror. I don’t feel like I properly enjoy short stories, which is why my coworker recommended Flannery O’Connor in the first place. Maybe it’s admirable that I’m trying to grow. Maybe I just like the look of books and the potential that they hold. My niece and my husband can have the monopoly on honest book collections. I’ll take my pretty, well organized lies.

Kelly Hannon worked in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at www.letterstopeopleihate.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

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