True Confessions: Which Books Do You Keep on Your Shelves Just to Make Yourself Look Good?

published Feb 4, 2015
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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Everyone does it: when you go to a new friend’s house, you check out their bookcase. It’s a subtle way of scoping out their likes and interests. You can learn a lot about somebody from looking at their bookshelves. But am I the only one who’s guilty of er, stacking the deck a little bit? There might be a few books on my shelves that I’ve never actually read, and may never actually read, but that I keep around because, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I want people to think I’m the sort of person who would read those books.

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Of course it always starts out innocently enough. Never have I ever bought a book thinking, “there is no way in hell I will ever read Ulysses, but I want people to think I’m literary.” They’re always things I imagine I will read, during one of those spells when I promise myself I will stop reading fluff novels and YA fiction and instead devote myself to Important books. This is how I have come to own books like Augustine’s City of God and The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Anna Karenina (which I actually got halfway through but stopped reading. So. much. farming.).

The part that’s a little bit disingenuous is when I’m cleaning out my bookshelves and I think, I will probably never read this — but the spine looks so attractive on this shelf! And really, would it hurt if people thought I had read Gravity’s Rainbow? Maybe I’m lying to myself a little, too, desperate to believe that I will someday become the sort of person who reads philosophy books, and hopeful that having other people think that I am already that person will push me in the right direction.

In a sense we do this with all the things we keep on display in our homes. Unless you never, ever have other people over, you probably pick and choose what you choose to have out with the thought of what those things will say about at least at the back of your mind. You’re crafting an identity, part real and part aspirational, to hold up to other people, and also to yourself.

Of course, this can occasionally backfire — like the time I had to admit to a visitor that I had only ever read one page of The City of God. Some of you, I’m sure, will think it serves me right for keeping all those little lies on my shelves. But I think this is something we all do, in some way or another — create better versions of ourselves to present to other people. What about you: are there any aspirational volumes on your shelves? (And if so, which ones?) Or are you far more upstanding than me?