If you want to gather insight so as to know someone better, spend some time checking out what they read. Or better yet, take some time to peruse their bookcase.
Allen Ginsberg famously said, “You are what you think about all day” and Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin remarked, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” So, it is not such a far stretch to presume that you can learn a lot about someone based upon their reading choices and purchases (or lack thereof). Individual curiosity, interests and tastes can be gleaned from private collections, as can personal weaknesses and strengths. I daresay even life and work ethos as well as cultural background can be extracted and compared to the person of interest via their stacked bookshelves.
Descriptors such as literary snobs, series junkies, trend readers, book clubbers and so on are quite common in the stereotypical blanket cover that is today’s fast paced half a second judgement call on everything from people to places to things. Still, I can’t deny having known just such readers in my life. For example, at university, certain classmates were absolutely elitist in their reading habits, at least publicly, always declaring that only the classics were worth their precious time and that anything else was beneath them. I also had a friend in high school that eschewed all reading other than Harlequin romances and another friend who only read from the Horror genre. Funnily and significantly, these two mutual friends were constantly bickering over the other’s poor judgement of reading material and stubbornly (a testament to their general nature to which I can attest to) refused to give the offensive “other” category a chance.
If I were to analyze myself, I am a polygamist (exclusively in my reading habits) as I always have multiple titles on the go at once. I am definitely all over the place (let’s say eclectic) in what I read. As mentioned in other articles, I am an emotionally driven reader as opposed to a follower of trends, bestseller lists or must reads (although at times my choices obviously infiltrate these areas as well).
If I am sad and hopeless, books such as La Douleur or Ugly will allow me to wallow. Feeling uninformed and needing a challenge brings me to titles such as Fascism A Warning or The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Boredom incites reading the lives of personalities such as Malcolm X or Margot Fonteyn. Lethargy requires a great mystery such as The Interpretation of Murder or The Poisonwood Bible. A disenchanted and slightly depressed moi can be revived by digging into A Promised Land or The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and a desirous of laughter me adores Faking it or When God was a Rabbit.
I have been described, by others, as a courageous reader for choosing books that were, and are, over my head. And I will tell you something, I don’t regret these choices at all! These books have all left me in different ways and to differing degrees with an immense sense of being in the presence of greatness (something larger than both writer and reader) and so were well worth the struggle. I have come to learn that although I may not capture every single nuance or understand fully every example offered up, it doesn’t mean I cannot take away a general understanding and appreciation of the subject at hand. And the very exposure and potential fascination of certain topics has led me to further explore and read more about said subject matter. This occurred, for example, after having read Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; a book that normally I wouldn’t have crossed paths with, if not suggested to me by Andrea.
After all, reading is about mind travel and creating an elasticity of mind that potentially translates into more tolerance, understanding and appreciation of all that surrounds us. In so doing we participate and don’t just sit on the sidelines of knowledge.
So why not check out a bookcase and see if it matches what you know about the people in your life. Or do a self evaluation. It is a great little exercise and fun to boot. And then… Let’s Talk.