Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Bookshelf as a Fashion Accessory: Are We Being Pretentious?

Photo Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

During my short stint at UC Santa Barbara, I had an acquaintance who carefully procured and selected the books he had on the shelf over his desk. I had stopped by his dorm so that we could work on a project for Chinese class. Scanning the room, my eyes came to rest on a small collection well-known literary classics on the shelf. "A person's bookshelf says a lot about their personality," he explained.
"Oh yeah?" I pulled out Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. "I loved this book!"

"What did you like about it?"

I went on to tell him about how I could relate to Frankenstein's monster's loneliness and the feeling of being the only one of your kind in the world, and having others treat you horribly due to your "otherness". This stemmed back from my experiences growing up as the only Chinese American kid at school.

"That's...pretty shallow," he replied.

I blinked, taken aback by his response. "Well, what did you like about it?" I challenged.

His response touched upon similar themes that I had mentioned, but the part of the conversation that stood out to me was that he hadn't read all the books on his shelf. He informed me that he had chosen the tomes specifically to project a sort of message about the type of person he was. From the small number of books he had on his shelf, I concluded that he was a minimalist (not a bad thing; I'd read the same books over and over if that pleased me), a fan of classic literature, and not very explorative when it came to reading. I wish I could go back in time and take another look, so that I could re-analyze the image that he wished to project onto the rest of the world. I'd be able to recognize more titles and their themes on the shelf.

Photo Source: Momentum of Failure
Lovers of fashion occasionally struggle with issues of form vs. function. And here, my dear acquaintance had chosen form over function (with the function being to actually read the book). He used the form of his book collection as a function. In a way, this is an art form of self-expression along with a dose of pretentiousness.

My acquaintance wasn't the first person or character (Ha! He has become a character in this narrative!) to use the form of his book collection to send a message. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novelGatsby has a gorgeous library that Nick comes upon during a party. One of the guests is surprised to find out that these books are actually real and not just empty covers that a lot of rich folks in the area use to create the image of an abundant library, full of books that they've never read. The original function of these books have been transformed from a tool of knowledge to a show of knowledge

I don't mind a dragon lover showing off his giant bookshelf of dragon classics. But I would feel a bit odd if he wanted to project the image of being a dragon expert (to, you know, fit in with all the other dragon elite) but in reality had no interest in any of the books he owned. 

Photo Source: Lead Apparel
Thus, in the discussion of "What does your bookshelf say about you?" On a visual level, it comes down to how much one values form vs. function. The form of your collection can tell a person how tidy or organized you are a person, and also whether you're going for a "look" or are just using the shelf to store things. After determining whether the collection is more form- or function-heavy, we can proceed to the type of books your shelves hold, which can be produce revelations about how so-and-so gifted this, how that person's been planning to read this book since forever, impulse buys, favorite books, a themed collection in the works, or an expression about the type of person you are. 

When it comes to what you put on your shelves, the same guidelines apply to bookshelves as in fashion: put what you like on your bookshelf, whether it's a bunch of trinket-clutter from your shopping trips, action figures, or trashy erotica novels. Like with fashion, there's always a certain degree of pretension involved when you are communicating your bookish taste with others. Maybe you stash your copy of 50 Shades of Grey in your drawers when that literary snob of a friend comes over to avoid ridicule. Or hide your Kama Sutra from your deeply conservative grandma. Perhaps you display (quite prominently) your books on Molecular Biology whenever your parents drop by to send them the message that you are a hardworking student. That's fine; we do it all the time to enhance and preserve harmony with each other.

However, if you're going to take the route of actively constructing a book collection to create a specific image of yourself, at least go all the way and read the darn books.

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