Learning everything you need to know about

a person by looking at

their bookshelves

I always love going to people’s houses for the first time, because there’s just so much you can learn about a person by looking at their living environment. By the same token, I’m often a little shy to have people in my own home because it makes me feel vulnerable and exposed, like I’m letting them see a bit too much of my psyche.

One of the most revealing areas of the home is the bookshelf. Here are a few of my observations (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course – this is, as psychics say, for “entertainment purposes only”):

No books: None at all? Very rare, but I’ve seen it. Generally people who watch a whole lot of TV and don’t have a whole lot of respect for intellectual pursuits (for example, they probably don’t know how to play chess, or they may think that a post-secondary degree is something one gets to get ahead in their career rather than an end in itself).

No shelves, but a few books lying around: Books may be found by the couch or on the nightstand. There will almost certainly be at least one in the bathroom (although some people hide their bathroom books when company is coming over in an effort to convince people that they don’t poop). These people fall into two categories, and you can generally tell the difference based on the type of books you find. Some are simply casual readers, similar to the no books people. Others are avid library-borrowers (either for ideological or for economic reasons). Either way, you will need to pay attention to the types of books you find to make a better diagnosis.

Reading material tends to be magazines: Magazines are obvious indicators of hobbies and interests. If you find magazines, you’ve struck gold. A “girly” mag like Cosmo tells you that your friend is either single or probably doesn’t have a long-standing beau (or, if she does, chances are that they fight like cats and dogs). A home-decorating mag tells you that your friend is either about to start renovating, or is the kind of person who is never quite satisfied with life – leaping into pursuit of the next goal when the last one has barely been accomplished.

Reading material tends to be pulp: Pulp comes in a variety of forms, from detective novels, to spy novels, to romance, &etc. Pulp books may run in the 300+ pages, but they are very fast reads and offer no challenge. People who read pulp tend to feel that reading is something one should do, but they don’t value it enough to put a lot of effort into it. Pulp readers may be career professionals with very little downtime available, for example.

Lots of classics, but no contemporary pieces that aren’t on high school reading lists: There’s a Dickens but no Gaskell, there’s Frederick Douglass but no Equiano. Check the spines and you’re likely to find them uncracked (or, if your friend is particularly fastidious about keeping up appearances, they are cracked too uniformly to have happened naturally by reading).

These are the people who value intellectualism, but who aren’t willing to put in the work to cultivate it in themselves. These people are probably insecure about their intelligence, so they surround themselves with the gaudy trappings of it. They may have read these books in high school, or at least the cliff notes, but they haven’t opened them since. You’ll make a very good impression if you comment admiringly at their collection, drawing attention to how smart they must be to have all these books.

Lots of classics and lots of pulp: A frequent mix, the standard high schooler’s reading list and a bunch of junk food for the brain. See point above.

An indiscriminate mixture: I’m often given books by friends and family members who have typecast me as “the one who loves books” but don’t know me (or books) well enough to figure out which ones I might like. I’ll also sometimes accept second hand books in bulk from friends (or garage sale dealers) and sort through them once I get home. To get rid of undesirable excess (duplicates, abridgements, crap), I’ll occasionally put ups ads and pass the books on to new homes.

From time to time, I’ll get offers for the whole lot. One such person told me, as she was picking up her boxes, that she “loves books.” These are people who value books and reading, but who don’t have the taste to discriminate between good reading and bad reading, and have no preferences of their own. These people are similar to those who own classics and pulp – they’ve identified reading as a desirable trait, and they want to convey that they are readers. As a redeeming feature, they at least they lack the pretentiousness of the classics-owners.

A wide variety, but with some common themes: This person is an avid reader who reads out of enjoyment rather than a sense that it is what one should do. This person has preferences, seeking out certain kinds of books over others. Unfortunately, if too eclectic, the variety found in their reading habits can probably also be found in their other pursuits. This person may have spent a year learning to play the piano before getting bored and picking up the violin (opting instead for the recorder shortly thereafter).

Overwhelmingly in one genre: There may be a little variety, but most of the books this person owns fall into a certain genre or category. For example, this person might have a few novels and a whole lot of books about astronomy. This person is focused, perhaps even obsessed. Unlike the fickle individual we saw above, this person sees things through.

This is someone who played a single instrument all through grade school. If they started a post-secondary education, they probably finished it (or are currently). I hope that you share some interests because this relationship could get real boring real fast if not!

This isn’t a precise science and there are several confounding factors. For example, when multiple people live in one home, it can be difficult to determine which books belong to which person, possibly leading to a misdiagnosis. I find that this is a bigger issue for roommates than it is for couples since couples (especially if they’ve been together for a long time) tend to gravitate towards each other in their personalities and interests. Gifts can also throw you off, as the person may be displaying a parent’s tastes, for example, rather than their own.

So, what kind of reader are you?