Bookshelf fever

When I had the café-bookshop I would often notice that if I stood in front of the bookshelf, some of the customers would have difficulty in maintaining eye contact. Their vision would invariably wander around the books lined up behind me, or they would absentmindedly pick up books that were stacked in various corners of the shop (the organisation of books was inconsistent at best, sporadic at worst) while they ordered coffee or discussed the weather. Recently, I noticed myself do the same thing: I could not help but examine the collection of books displayed behind my fellow conversationalist, recognising ones I had read, that I would like to read and ones that I will most probably never read. I foolishly believed I was continuing the conversation as was expected, until I suddenly realised I was alone in the room.

What is it about a few books together that immediately draws your attention? Over time I realised that it had to be at least three books piled up (maybe two books were easy enough to glance over surrepticiously) and that the conversation could more or less continue in the same way while the books were registered, investigated and judged. The judgement of books (and of their owners) is another weakness I must confess to – countless times I have changed my opinion of a human person because of the book they were reading. I remember someone (a fellow book fever sufferer) tell me that books would regularly recommend the reader to them, and not the other way around. I must admit I have thought the same while coming across someone reading a beloved book – they have instantly gone up in my estimation.

When it comes to books I suffer from the same kind of proprietorial behaviour that I quickly condemn other people for when it comes to their possesions. I’m sure Marie Kondo is a nice person, but she would not be allowed anywhere near my bookshelves. What is it about a physical book? Is there a difference between avid readers of books and avid readers of Kindle? Probably not, but the allure of a collection of multicoloured spines sitting on a bookshelf goes beyond those devoted few. The aesthetic value in the creation of a cozy café is undeniable too – many customers would remark on how nice the decoration was before realising that the books were actually for sale. And each section had its own style: English books were bright and colourful; most of the books in our French section were in black and white; and most titles in other languages would read from the bottom up, in contrast to English ones. (Personally I crane my neck to the right when reading English titles, and to the left for Spanish and Catalan.)

Of course in the current age of Zoom we can engage in book-judging espionage on much larger scale, now that we can peep at everyone’s home bookshelves. How many times I have been distracted from what a politician or a scientist is saying by the titles stacked up behind them? What appraisal can I make of their inner lives by how they arrange their reading material? This led to an online survey about how people arranged their bookshelves, and 2% of the population confessed that they arranged them by colour. (As does J.K. Rowling, apparently.) I’m afraid that is not a pastime I will ever take part in. I have a shelf/pile of books I am intending to read next (which varies in size, according to the day) and another one of books that I wish I didn’t have but haven’t gotten around to giving away yet either. Everything in between is in just the right place, whether the title reads bottom up or top down.

What is it about a shelf of books?