What does your bookshelf say about you? – By A.S. Akkalon
A.S. Akkalon planned to run away and join the circus until the fantastical worlds of David Eddings, Katharine Kerr, and Raymond E. Feist inspired her to become a fantasy author.
By day, she works in an office where computers outnumber suits of armour more than two-to-one, and by night she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.
She blogs bad advice, random silliness, and the occasional short story at www.asakkalon.com, and can often be found grubbing in the leaf litter under the Twitter trees (@AkkalonAS).
She’s currently editing her high fantasy novel, “Rain on Dragon Scales”, which takes itself more seriously than her blog, but not too seriously. It also has dragons.
If life has taught her anything, it’s that the cat is always right.
It’s hard to get to know people. So what if a person likes cinnamon on her cappuccinos and never goes out without her French poodle. She could be an axe murderer who feeds her victims to her dog. You don’t know.
Nope. If you really want to figure someone out, have a snoop at the books she keeps on her bookshelves. And not just the “public display” bookshelves. Also the secret one in the back of the wardrobe behind the slide-out wine rack and under the mountain of retired dog toys.
Step 1: Bookshelf area
Calculating the bookshelf-to-wall ratio
When analysing a person by her bookshelves, the first point to consider is the ratio of bookshelf to total wall space in the house. Exclude the bathroom, laundry, and kitchen, but don’t forget to include hidden bookshelves and those in secret libraries. (And of course, anyone with a secret library is automatically awesome.)
For example, consider the simple case where the house is one square room. If bookshelves cover one wall from floor to ceiling, the ratio is a respectable 1:4.
Don’t forget to adjust for bookshelves that don’t stretch all the way to the ceiling. In the case above, if the bookshelves were half the height of the room, the ratio would be 1:8.
Experts disagree on whether to subtract wall space taken up by windows from total potential wall space. I stand firmly in the camp of “no.” If books are that important, you can cover up the windows. Sunlight only fades the spines, anyway.
Staircases can complicate your calculations, especially spiral ones. The proper way to account for these can be determined only on a case-by-(book)case basis. If you need further guidance, I suggest watching the detailed videos on this topic on YouTube.
Adjusting for ebooks
Interpretation of the ratio is complicated by the ubiquity of ebooks. What you need to know is the person’s ratio of ebooks to physical books, which will let you adjust her bookshelf-to-wall ratio appropriately.
Obviously, you don’t want her to realise what you’re doing, so my recommendation is to subtly slip a question into the conversation. For example:
YOU: Of course, I’d be happy to feed your dog while you’re trekking to Everest base camp.
HER: Thank you. She only eats human flesh and prefers white meat to red, but give her a mix of both each meal or she won’t eat any of the red. The bags are in the freezer. Just defrost one bag for each meal.
YOU: That sounds easy. A few minutes in the microwave?
HER: Yea, that works fine. I have a few whole hands and feet that you can give her as treats, but don’t leave the bones on the lawn when she’s finished with them because the neighbours hate that.
YOU: Do you want me to walk her as well?
HER: If you could that would be great. Try not to let her eat any joggers. She loves prey that runs.
YOU: I’m sure I can manage. Have a great trip!
HER: Thanks. Is there anything else you need to know?
YOU: Just one thing. What would you say your ratio of ebooks to physical books is?
HER: About 1:1, I’d say.
YOU: Great. See you in a month.
See, easy! And no suspicions aroused at all.
So, if her ratio counting only physical books were 8:1, her true ratio would be 4:1.
Interpreting the bookshelf-to-wall ratio
No evidence of bookshelves: Run away. This person will have nothing of interest to talk about, and may, in fact, be an alien posing (badly) as human. If you’re able to establish the latter is the case, you might politely suggest that no one will believe a well-balanced person doesn’t own any books, and they should consider adding books to improve their disguise.
100:1 or worse: Nine times out of ten, most of the books in such a case will be Dan Brown or cooking books. This person obviously understands that books are necessary for life, but has failed to grasp why. Or he really likes to cook. Expect great food and limited conversation.
100:1 to 20:1: This person has probably read a few books since high school and may be amenable to reading more. Try giving her a gift of a good book and gauge her reaction. If she’s delighted (and actually reads it), she can still be saved.
20:1 to 5:1: This person reads. A lot. He will be great for conversation, assuming you don’t mind being made to look stupid in your ignorance. Also an excellent source of book recommendations.
5:1 or better: This person is a reading legend, but may run into trouble communicating with other humans. (Oh, or the house might be really tiny.) Watch for a gaze that flits left and right (as if reading a book), and always be prepared to provide a calming cup of tea and make yourself scarce if the human interaction overwhelms him.
Step 2: Fiction vs. Non-fiction
Now that you have an idea of the intensity of the person’s reading habit, it’s time to start looking at what she reads. The most basic split is fiction versus non-fiction.
The organised reader will make your job easy for you by shelving fiction books separately from non-fiction. Anyone who mixes the two on the same shelf should be regarded with grave suspicion.
Any ratio between 2:1 and 1:2 is considered normal.
More than twice as many non-fiction as fiction books: Beware, this person may take himself way too seriously. Unless the non-fiction books are all about how to make origami kittens, in which case he’s fine.
More than twice as many fiction as non-fiction books: Beware, this person may be a dreamer who expects a happily ever after and thinks every angry soul is hiding a genuine good guy beneath. You’re likely to be a huge disappointment to her.
Step 3: But what books is he reading?
Now for the most fun step, looking at what the books are.
The experts propose two opposite approaches to this step.
The macro-to-micro technique involves skimming the titles and topics of all the books. Keep a special note of how many books are soppy romance, techniques of mind control, philosophical treatises on why Hitler was right, or involve half-elves (hint: in this last case, one is too many).
Does your overview set off alarm bells, or is there a good balance between puppy Westerns, shark-in-space scifis, and instructions on how to rob a bank with just a stick of chalk and a pencil sharpener?
The alternative approach is the micro-to-macro technique. This is more time-consuming, but in some cases can yield a more accurate understanding.
The first step is to select the five books on their shelves that look the most well-thumbed. What do their titles and covers suggest? Are any of the pages stuck together? (If so, you may want to invest in latex gloves before proceeding.)
Flip through each, looking for highlighting and/or unlining. Anyone who defaces a book by doing either of these should be hung, drawn, and made to read Twilight.
If you do find marking, what passages have been marked?
Reassuring sign: “Once you have adopted a kitten it is your master, so be prepared to cater to its every whim.”
Warning sign: “Wait until he is engrossed in your books before hitting him over the head with a frozen leg of lamb.”
Finally, read all five books from cover to cover. What kind of person would read them all more than once? Note you might pick up something from the combination of books that you don’t get from them separately. For example, “Five common poisons you have in your cupboards” takes on a different meaning when coupled with “How to write a murder mystery with your pants on.”
I’m sure by reading the books you’ll learn something about the person. But even if you don’t, you’ve just read five books, which has to be a win.
Now get out of the house before the poodle eats you.
Have you ever learned something about a person by browsing the books they read? What would people make of you by snooping around your bookshelves?