‘I asked writers about their relationships to their personal libraries to glean what I could of the self-making properties of these collections. Urban fantasy author Daniel José Olderrecently tweeted about his appreciation of e-books as both a practical and environmentally friendly alternative to hard copies. Older told me that, despite poking good-natured fun at those who wax poetic about hard copies of books, he loves books too and would miss having the large collection that he and his wife do have if it were to disappear. But he is less concerned about what books are contained within. “I think, at some point, I rid myself of the notion that there are books I should have read,” says Older. “I’m not going to sit here and measure my literary canon dick with somebody else. I read great books and they made me the writer I am.”
Haley Mlotek says that her book collection is first and foremost, about her own love of books. “I’ve always wanted a library that I could show off, sure… but I’m the one who likes looking at it, likes thinking about the books I have read and the books I haven’t and having them within arms reach no matter what apartment or sublet or space I’m in,” Mlotek says. “More than my clothes or my dishes, my books feel like they can be the most consistent part of what makes my apartment my home.” Because she dropped out of college early, her book collection has come “to represent the learning I’ve just done or am yet to do.” In this way, books function as a promise to herself and stand in a sort of defiance to the idea that universities are the only tools by which we can acquire an education.
Writer Kyle Chayka tells me that the most important books in his life are on a shelf in his room, away from most visitors’ views but prominent in his own. “Looking at them, not even reading them, is a kind of meditation, I think, and a reminder of what the books mean to you, or what arguments they’re making. So displaying them is a continuation of a kind of intellectual dialogue,” says Chayka.
From speaking with these writers and more, I understand that this knowledge signaling that books perform is not inherently a sign of ego. There can be something vulnerable and communal in displaying your books. James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” To come into a stranger’s home and see a beloved book on their shelf creates the bond of a shared memory. “You and I have traveled to the same places and with the same friends,” it tells us. “We were pursued by the same enemy and we emerged alive.” I do not begrudge anyone the desire to keep their books as vessels of memory and potential connection with others, conversation pieces more ripe for discussion than a coffee table or an antique lamp.’