What do your bookshelves say about you?

I saw this fascinating article on the BBC website today about what our bookshelves say about us. It was inspired by the 30th anniversary of the good old Billy IKEA bookcase, of which I own one, that has been put together wrongly (the rough edges of the two sides face the front instead of the back, so mine has a rustic effect…completely unintentional and I was too exhausted from the effort of screwing with a COMPLETELY POINTLESS ALLEN KEY to rectify my mistake by the time I had noticed), and is now almost collapsing under the weight of my books in the corner of my bedroom. Billy holds a mixture of random unorganised books as well as a bottom shelf of ‘unread’ books that I must get around to one day. There are also piles of either recently read or recently purchased books shoved on the edge of shelves that don’t really fit anywhere else, and miscellaneous stuff that I can’t find anywhere else to put dotted on the shelves. It looks a complete mess, but as I have nowhere else to put any of the books, a complete mess it must stay. To the left of Billy is another pile of unread books and to the right is a lovely Persephone bookbag filled with unread copies of the TLS that I subscribed to and then never got around to reading. Some of those are nearly two years old and still in their cellophane. Oh well.

On the other side of my wardrobe (see photo on the left) sits my little bookcase that is made up entirely of unread purchases. It is my Bookcase of Shame and is the first thing I see when I wake up, as it is directly opposite my bed. The Bookcase of Shame’s purpose is to collect all of my unread books together in one place, making me realise just how many unread books I have managed to accumulate, and shame me into stopping my obsessive book buying habit. Needless to say the Bookcase of Shame has failed in its task and the collection of unread books has spilled out into another shelf on the aforementioned Billy and also a large teetering pile beside Billy as seen above. I have admitted defeat on this one and have settled on a philosophy of in for a penny, in for a pound. If I’m going to have a book addiction, I may as well do it properly. I suspect another teetering pile beside Billy will be growing soon.

My third and final bookcase sits in the living room of the flat I share. No one else is allowed to use this bookcase. It is filled with all of the books I have managed to read and is in no order whatsoever. One day when I have my own house and can line the walls with bookshelves and not worry about running out of space, I will alphabetise. Until that day, my books can be grateful that they even fit on a shelf, because some of their unlucky brothers and sisters don’t even have that luxury. They are stuck in boxes under my bed, gathering dust and generally feeling unloved. I know this is heartless but I have nowhere else to put them and they do have each other for company as they slowly lose a little more hope every day that they will have a shelf of their own. The shelf is coming my friends, I promise. One day.

This leads me on to the content of my bookshelves. They are filled with all sorts but most are Victorian to mid 20thc women’s fiction, classics, social histories or literary biographies. I collect Virago Modern Classics and Persephones, largely indiscriminately; I know I will like what they print so I am willing to take a chance on whichever ones I find, as long as they aren’t too expensive. Most of my books are bought from charity or second hand book shops, though some of the nicer hardbacks I have either got as presents or won as school prizes. The majority of my books have been read and loved, and I keep them because I enjoyed them and I want to have them around me in case I should ever want to read them again. Others have been bought because I fully intend on reading them, and though they might have to wait a while, I will get around to reading them eventually. Some of my books I will admit I have solely because they make me look intelligent and well read (I may or may not have read them..) and some I bought just because they have gorgeous bindings. However, I did weed most of these vain purchases out when I last moved so the majority of my beloved books are indeed beloved and will be appreciated when I get around to reading them. Some people (mainly my mother) are appalled that I continue to buy books at a rapid rate even though I have a bookcase and a bit of unread books already, but I like the fact that I can always be sure to have something new to read, and I have such fun browsing book shops for that special find that I can’t stop myself, no matter how hard I try. There are worse addictions to have!

So…what do my bookshelves say about me? I think they show that I:

1. Can’t stop buying books
2. Have fairly traditional tastes
3. Am a bit snobby
4. Am very interested in women’s fiction
5. Am very interested in Victorian fiction
6. Like literary biographies
7. Had a teenage obsession with the Russian Romanovs…hence my huge collection of books on Imperial Russia
8. Don’t do organisation

And if I could pick three books from my collection to sum me up?

1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – I am traditional, feminine and am very much a homebody. I love to sew and bake and read and drink tea and be cosy and be surrounded by family and friends, much like the girls in Little Women. I was born 55 and I’ve only been getting older since, what can I say!

2. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – Though I have grown up in the suburbs, I am desperate to get out and have had itchy feet for a long time. The protagonist of this book, Karim, is searching for something more than a life in a semi in a non descript London suburb and wants to make something of himself; this was my favourite book as a teenager and it inspired me so much that I gave copies to all my friends. This book shows the secret rebel in me and continues to inspire me to dare to believe in something more.

3. New York Mosaic by Isabel Bolton – New York is my favourite place and I dream of running away to the bright lights of Manhattan and charming the socks off everybody with my London accent and excellent tea making skills. The cover of this book is of the New York skyline and every time I catch a glimpse of it, it makes me smile and my thoughts drift to the city that never sleeps, and my dream of making it my home one day.

So, what’s on your bookshelves, and what do they say about you??


  1. Book Psmith says:

    I just cleaned out my upstairs bookcase and now have half-empty shelves that are saying 'please fill us with books'. I have been working on that today:) I love looking at other readers' bookshelves…I think they do have a story to tell about their owner. I enjoyed seeing the older publications as well as the Persephones. It must be an IKEA thing because I have one of their bookcases that did not come together very well and now leans to one side until I give it a shove.

  2. makedoandread says:

    I find bookshelves not crowded and overflowing with books to be a little sad. They must feel unloved. Far better to be a bookcase of shame, loaded down with all sorts of treats to be explored as yours is.I'm not sure what my bookshelves say about me. I rather suspect it's "dust me!"

  3. verity says:

    What a wonderful post – I love seeing other people's bookshelves, and I love your analysis as to what it says about you. I really think you should move the Bookcase of shame though!I think the complete lack of organisation would startto annoy me though – I would have to either have them in alphabetical order or at least the Persephone titles and VMCs together!My bookshelves are from Argos, and I am extremely skilled at building them having now got 6 of them!

  4. chasingbawa says:

    Ha ha ha, I have a bookshelf of shame too! And mine is double layered. Sometimes I even forget that I've got books hidden behind the ones I can actually see. But one day, I'm hoping to slowly work my way through the books that I can't help but keep buying.

  5. savidgereads says:

    There is just too much to sneakily read on this delightful (yet again) post so I will be popping back this evening! I need time to take it all in!

  6. Bloomsbury Bell says:

    Points 1,2,3,4,6 & 8 are actually completely true of me as well. I have piles of shame which are all on my desk. Your shelves look very familiar and mine are dotted all over our flat as well. A house without books is not a home, a house without books in every room is not a reader's home!I am going to look at my shelves later to try and analyze myself – might take a while! Interesting books that sum you up. I know exactly what mine would be…

  7. Paperback Reader says:

    I don't have a bookcase of shame per se … I don't separate my books read and unread but know automatically where they are and what's shameful and what's not; they would shame me too much if they were shelved together. My bookcases are all Billy ones (the half ones), attached to one another and organised around a corner of our living room; they say about me that I love books and that I have a hopeless obsession with buying them. Some of my books' siblings live in Glasgow and may never be seen again, which is tragically devastating.As for the content of the shelves, they would reveal that I am a collector with diverse tastes who is particularly interested in modern and postmodern literature, women writers, literary fiction, and fairy tales.

  8. Desperate Reader says:

    I don't think of it as a bookcase of shame, more a bookcase of oppertunity… I love this post.

  9. jennysbooks says:

    Interesting article! I have a bunch of old, crappy bookshelves I got for free, and they say a lot about me as the books are organized by how much I love them. Books on the far right, I couldn't live without; books on the far left, disposable. It is difficult for anyone but me to find the books they want on my shelves. πŸ˜›

  10. fleurfisher says:

    Definitely not a bookcase of shame, but a sign of a future well planned. You need to have the right book for every mood to hand! I dare not separate my unread books because the number is absurd, but many of them I may never have found again had I let them get away.

  11. savidgereads says:

    If you pop by my blog today (sorry not promoting myself with your blog am just saying) and follow the links you will see I have a room of shame, it involves shelves of shame, boxes of shame and some piles of shame. There is book shame everywhere I look aroung me at the moment. The line 'no one else can use these shelves' made me guffaw once more. I have two in my house and even being married to me does not allow The Converted One to touch my shelves at any point ever.Another fabulous post Rachel, loved it muchly. I would also like to add I was born 55 too.

  12. hjelliot says:

    What a timely blog. I recently had an ikea bookcase debacle and ended up culling a few books. I went with the sole purpose of bringing home a matching bookcase to the one I purchased only months ago only to discover that they have discontinued it in black (the color I purchased) and no longer sell it. 😦 And so my books were rearranged when what they really wanted was just another bookcase. I would say my shelves say I'm pretty tidy. I like to keep like subjects with like subjects or certain publishers together. I like literary biographies, women's 20th century fiction, poetry, and a sprinkling of classics. I've just taken some pictures of my bookshelves and posted them to flickr, so do take a look. http://www.flickr.com/photos/johncelliot/

  13. Madeleine says:

    I'd say my books express my love for them. They're neatly taken care of. I have a few gorgeously bound books-my weakness. Luckily, I receive most as gifts. My books are all organized by author on shelves that are hanging precariously from the wall and destined to fall on top of my bed, and, consequently, me. I'm waiting for the day that I wake up and find a book lying on my nose.I have more than a hundred books, all chapter books–none of them are from my baby-hood (then again, I hardly read anything before Nancy Drew and Little Women). My mother promised me, before realizing my inclination to walk out of Borders with a teetering pile of fresh, crisp books, to buy any book I would read. She broke her promise about a year ago, breaking my little bookish heart as well. It takes some straggling, these days, to get a book out of her. Hence my stagnant, seemingly unchanging bookshelf. All the same, the shelves seem to sink lower and lower.I'd say I have about ten unread books on my shelves. A few are books I've either tried and put off because they're tedious to read, or they're books that will take so much dedication and time that I've saved them for a rainy day… and the next and the next, as we have many rainy days in my town.This is an incredibly interesting post. Thanks for sharing (and putting up with my inevitably long comment)!

  14. StuckInABook says:

    I love to see other people's shelves,and love no.1 of what your shelves say about you!

  15. Darlene says:

    Oh dear, I posted a comment yesterday but it hasn't appeared so I either messed up or it's floating around in blog limbo.Wouldn't I love to be able to plunk myself in front of those shelves for a long browse! What we house on our shelves does say quite a bit about ourselves doesn't it. I love it when one of my co-workers says that a certain book is 'a Darlene book'. There's no hiding the fact that an anglophile lives in my house based on my collection and my degree of organization amounts to books being shelved by height. They are my treasures and if fire broke out, as long as my family was safe, my first instinct would be to start chucking books out the window. For some women I think it would be shoes and purses!Guilt is something that I live with but a healthy dose does help keep me reined in a bit. And then there's my husband who equates book purchases with pints of beer. He'll say 'that book is three pints and I wouldn't give that a second thought so buy it!'. I can't argue with that logic.

  16. Danielle says:

    My shelves/piles/bins and boxes say I have not one single ounce of self control! πŸ™‚ I started out much like you–in a small-ish apartment with just two bookcases (filled the brims) and slowly growing piles next to one of them. I'm not sure what happened in the next 15 years, but when I moved into a house they just seemed to explode into more and more piles. I wish I could say I've read each and every one, but I am trying (hence so many books started at once)! I also collect Viragos indiscriminately and would do the same for Persephones only I have to be more sparing as I've yet to see a used one on this side of the Atlantic and postage prices are so exorbitant–so that's one collection that does grow slowly. Lovely bookcases–we share many of the same tastes. And I've given up on buying literary newspapers and magazines as I have the very same problem–I want to read them but I always reach for a book instead!

  17. Annabel Gaskell says:

    I must admit I'm rather a fan of Billy Bookcases, we've got about 8 dotted around our house. There is no such thing as a shelf of shame though! I love looking at other people's bookshelves – they say a lot about their owner, and yours look lovely.

  18. Rachel says:

    Thank you everyone for your comments! I've loved reading everyone's opinions on my, and their own bookshelves! I so enjoy you coming to my blog.I am so glad that I'm not the only one with overflowing shelves and a pile of shame…I now feel absolved of my shame as everyone else has too many books as well! A true sign of a book lover and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that!Heather, I loved your shelves, they are just beautiful.

  19. Diane says:

    Rachel….Loved looking at your shelves, and wanted to mention that I LOVE the name of your blog. I am guilty of being a "book snob" as well …LOL

  20. claire says:

    Rachel.. That's so funny! I was probably born 55 too! My two bookcases are both Billy as well (white), the largest ones. Unfortunately, I couldn't put anything on the last two shelves at the bottom because of my baby. I would hate for him to play with my books!What my bookshelves say about me would probably be that I'm an obsessive compulsive! My books are too organized (alphabetical by author). I notice, too (and only noticed this year when I started blogging), that most of my favourite authors tend to be men. What does that say about me? Yikes. I also noticed I like a lot of magical realism and translated books (most especially from Spanish).

  21. Rachel says:

    Diane – Thank you so much! It sums me up perfectly!! I am such a book snob, it is quite shameful!Claire – Isn't it interesting what books we tend to gravitate towards, often without realising? Mine are mainly by women…what does that say about me?! And no, definitely no babies playing with books..my baby nephews aren't allowed near mine! The soon to be 3 year old has a nasty habit of destroying books!

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