would you date someone with no books on their shelves? 11.15.2007, 1:43 AM
posted by sebastian mary
I'm not completely sure about the netiquette of blogging about a conversation heard around the digital watercooler, ie on a close-knit community messageboard; but I came across one such recently that made me pause.
Paraphrased, the thread started out asking about the ethics of going through other people's stuff. But it moved on to the subject of snooping on others' bookshelves. The question then became: if you were left alone in someone else's house the morning after a date, would you make a judgement about their suitability for future dates from their book collection? The answer was an overwhelming yes.
There were a few dissenting voices who muttered about intellectual snobbery, performance anxiety about their bookshelves, or even setting traps for book-snobs by displaying their Stephen King collection somewhere prominent. But the common element was a sense that someone's book collection is an intimate portrait of their interests and/or aspirations, and can have a profound effect on others' perceptions - to the point of being a romantic deal-breaker.
Books as extensions of personality is a familiar theme. But the context of the conversation, an internet messageboard, got me thinking. The theme of the messageboard in question is sexuality, and hence the community self-selects for reasons that have nothing to do with things intellectual/literary. I reckon it's fair to say it was a small but reasonably random sample of moderately digitally-literate UK women.
Now, a familiar narrative in the publishing industry says that print is dying: see, for example, Jeff Gomez, Penguin USA's director of online sales and marketing, on BBC Radio 4's Open Book last week to promote his new (print!) book Print Is Dead. This narrative pits books against the internet, as though the latter either follows the former in some ineluctable evolution, or else the latter is a predatory force out to destroy culture as we know it. But this digital watercooler conversation, conducted amongst 'normal' internet-using people, suggests that these apocalyptic visions have more to do with industry angst than any widespread cultural shift among everyday users of print and digital media.
Despite a relatively high common standard of net literacy, no-one said 'I wouldn't care about lack of books - I'd be more worried about being stuck in a house with no wifi'. There was an overwhelming consensus that books are revealing, important and an insight into a stranger's interests. The sense was not that digital media might replace books, but that they play different roles, and are perceived as different in kind - not just at the level of how they deliver 'content'.
Such despatches from the middle ground might seem unglamorous in comparison with the giddy high-altitude futurism of Kelly et al, or pronouncements of the death of hard copy. But they're worth noting. The cultural currency of books should not be conflated with the economics of producing them, such that a challenge to the latter is narrated as a collapse of the former. Though this might seem obvious, it's one of the most common elisions in the discourse of print vs. online; it does little but muddy the debate, and has even less to do with lived reality for most people.
jessica on November 15, 2007 4:24 AM:
Yes, I once fell in love instantly with someone who has quite a few very attractive bookshelves, even before dating this person. I just felt that I knew him so well with the book he has or has read.
Dan on November 15, 2007 6:50 AM:
I don't think the books in the collection would have much impact, but I'm always curious/suspicious of people who don't have books at all. Why? Why, why, why? How can they survive?
Molly Kleinman on November 15, 2007 6:55 PM:
I think there is a distinction between book as cultural signifier and book as useful object. If the only reason people keep books around is to communicate something about their identities, while all their actual text consumption - be it for work or play - happens digitally, I think that is a kind of death for print. Print becomes a fetish for collectors and intellectual snobs.
I don't actually think that's going to happen, and in fact I was recently in a friendly debate at DLF in which I was on the "books will be useful for a long time" side. Still, I think the "cultural currency of books" is different from the practical utility of books for preserving and conveying information, and maybe a less compelling argument for their long-term survival.
K.G. Schneider on November 16, 2007 8:35 AM:
This will label me as an impossible fogey, but I got stuck on this sentence: "The question then became: if you were left alone in someone else's house the morning after a date, would you make a judgement about their suitability for future dates from their book collection?"
I'm struggling with the person who leaps into bed with someone and then the next day begins coolly assessing this person's "suitability." That should have come first. By that time, if I see Ayn Rand on the shelf I am going to assume it was read with the same ironic twist Tobias Wolff gives this author in "Old School," and if I know this person is a library user, I'm not going to be surprised by any gaps.
As for actual book body count, if you move a lot, you learn to get tough with books. I keep the books (and back issues of journals) I absolutely must own. I wish it were otherwise--the feel of books, blah blah--but I've loved many a book and returned it to the library from whence it came.
barbara trumpinski-roberts on November 16, 2007 5:30 PM:
I asked the student working at the circulation desk and she said she wouldn't judge a person who didn't have a bookshelf because they might get all of their books from the library. I'd have determined if the person were a reader or not before going home with him/her.
I agree with Karen, you should determine the person's suitability first (one of my partners seduced me with Marion Zimmer Bradley and I met two others in Callahan's Place) (5 person group marriage)
Gary Frost on November 17, 2007 7:12 AM:
Of course the prospects for print and the prospects for screen reading are NOT hard linked. But they are interactive, so far to the vindication of print!
At the moment I am accessing church libraries in Arequipa Peru. The interesting transition is that libraries centuries old convey their same instructional function in a new context: projecting the importation of culture (the internet) into a new world (of multiple, interacting reading modes). It is strange that these old books and their libraries, now enlivened by agendas of turism and public education, are telling their story of cultural overlay and the role of technology yet again.
Benjamin Chambers on November 19, 2007 1:12 AM:
Er, well, as to Trumpinski-Roberts' point that the absence of books might be due to the fact that one's new bed partner might be a library user, I say pfft! Library users tend to have a lot of books on their floors, coffee tables, and shelves: they just happen to have call numbers on them.
As to judging other people by their books: yes, it's unavoidable. But what I've learned the hard way is that (a) you can't ever assume that another person will read a book the same way you will (i.e., they'll do so with either more or less sophistication); (b) people change and grow over time, and their books may not reflect either who they are currently, or who they will be in future years; and (c) some people simply aren't verbal learners. Visual learners can be damned smart and knowledgeable, but reading simply isn't pleasurable for them, because it's not how their brains are wired to process information.
None of which speaks to the main point here, about the continuing importance of books as cultural reference points. Be interesting to see if this question were asked in 10 years of people who are now 15 ... might be a different result.
Jason on November 25, 2007 3:02 PM:
If you sleep with somebody before checking her bookshelf, it's too late!
"What really matters is what you like, not what you are like."
Saje Williams on June 26, 2008 3:23 PM:
My first wife wasn't much of a reader at the time, though she has since become something of one (after all, she bought a copy of one of MY books), and I quickly learned that I prefer to have as many interests as possible with any prospective partner. My wife now is a reader and reviewer and her library was one I absolutely approved of the first time I visited her house. At the time my own library was fairly small and stored somewhere else. Together we have enough books to fill a small bookstore. Of course, we've collected a serious amount over the past few years.
Yes, books matter. I mean, how could I ever consider a romance with someone who didn't know where Callahan's Place might be, or the name of the Man From Mars, or even the name of the planet where those telepathic dragons come from?