Monday, January 31, 2011

An analysis of my personality via my bookshelf

In a recent article in the New York Times, Geoff Nicholson writes about the sort of conclusions you can draw (erroneously or not) based on the books in a person's collection. After discussing the more unusual parts of his own collection (Hitler's Mein Kampf, and books by Ann Coulter), he discusses what kinds of books criminals tend to favor, and wonders if that really is a reflection of their character.

He concludes with an analysis of his own bookshelf:

So, if you actually did examine my bookshelves you could probably reach some reasonably accurate conclusions about my age, class, nationality, sexuality and so on. You would see that I’m not some dangerous, volatile, politically extreme nut job. Rather, you would decide that I’m a bookish, cosmopolitan sophisticate, with broad, quirky and unpredictable interests, a taste for literary experimentation, a sense of history, a serious man with a sense of humor and a wide range of sympathies. At any rate, that’s what I’d like you to think.

Looking at my own book collection, I'm tempted to guess what conclusions a stranger might draw about me. The first notable thing is that it's divided between fiction and nonfiction, and then categorized by author. I'm told that this is not normal, but I can think of numerous friends who do the same things with their book collections. Birds of a feather, I guess!

From the prominent themes in my nonfiction collection (but not counting my shelves of textbooks), it's pretty clear that I'm a vegetarian with an acute interest in sustainable food practices, as discussed by such authors as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Jonathan Safran Foer. I also have a clear affinity for books on environmentalism, both from the philosophical and the scientific perspectives; this aspect of the collection is accented by a fairly significant number of books on natural history.

Moving on to my fiction collection, it's pretty clear that I tend to favor the speculative fiction genres, primarily in the form of classical science fiction and high fantasy. Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, and Frank Herbert take up a pretty hefty chunk of my bookcase, as do authors like Terry Brooks, Diana Wynne Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien and Tad Williams. In addition to the high fantasy, there's some low fantasy (J.K. Rowling) and some fantasy books that straddle the line between tasteful and trashy beach reads (Charlaine Harris, alright, don't judge me). Most of the occurrences of actual "literature" are either literary works that have an element of science fiction or fantasy (Margaret Atwood, Tolkien) or are pretty recent publications. Looking at the conditions of each book makes it pretty clear what phases I've gone through, as a reader. Watership Down's cover is taped on. Pride and Prejudice is still full of the notations I made in it in 8th grade, and the spine is evidence of the multiple times I've reread it. One of my Diana Wynne Jones books has a crack up the spine. Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass is in desperate need of a new cover, and The Golden Compass needs to be replaced because its cover fell off. Harry Potter 2-4 have seen better days, as their covers are tattered, pages are bent, and other characteristics that just give them an overall dilapidated sort of appearance. HP1 is only in good condition because it was replaced when the original copy quite literally split into three pieces in my hands. I have three complete sets of The Lord of the Rings: a cheap set of paperbacks, a special edition set of paperbacks with Tolkien's original cover artwork on them, and a set of leather-bound volumes printed on acid free paper with gilded edges. I also have The Book of Lost Tales 1 &2 and Unfinished Tales and The Atlas of Middle Earth in the leather-bound volumes.

I guess my bookshelf might indicate that I'm a tree hugging hippie with a tenuous grasp on reality. I suppose that is a semi-accurate explanation of who I am, especially when the textbook shelf is added to the discussion. All of my textbooks are about geology, hydrology and geophysics, and the vast majority of them assume that the reader has had at least 3 semesters of calculus and 3 more semesters of upper-level math beyond that. So, not only am I a delusional hippie, I clearly don't get out much and probably have a fairly crappy social life. OK, yeah, that's very true. You could also interpret my bookshelf by saying that I am extremely well-informed about a handful of issues, I guess.

There are, of course, things about me that are not reflected in my bookshelf (yet!). I am interested in US politics, though I don't know if I could stomach reading hundreds and hundreds of pages about most topics. I have a keen interest in public health and the latest research in health matters; when I scroll through the New York Times site every day, the first section I check is the Health section, followed by the US news section. I really enjoy historical fiction, especially from Tudor England or the American Revolutionary War. I like reading about the history of the Catholic Church... not for pro- or anti-Catholic reasons, just because I think the Church's trajectory over the centuries has been pretty fascinating. And, if you look at my pile of books that are yet to be read, it's pretty clear that my tastes are changing. I'm moving away from fantasy at a pretty quick pace (though my last two book purchases were fantasy), and I'm moving more towards main-stream fiction and unusual science fiction. My nonfiction pile is also becoming more varied... although it still has books on environmental history and natural phenomena, it also has books on psychology, linguistics, US history, and world history.

Take a look at your own bookshelf... what does your book collection say (or not say) about who you are?

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