for writers and readers….

Can you judge someone by the books on their shelves?


If I’m in someone’s house for the first time I can’t help but look at their book collection. My husband used to do it with records. It’s not so easy nowadays, although I have watched him, head down, studying a friend’s Ipod the only sound being a series of satisfied yes, yes, yeses, interrupted by the occasional ‘Really?” (This would be a mutual exchange of course – the friend making the same dark mutterings). But I’ve never done a Kindle swop, have you?
Anyway, if you’re a reader then there have to be books in your home. In piles, on shelves, in a bespoke library, whatever…
I’ll be honest and say the first thing I asses is the quantity. Back in the 90s it was said that a middle class home wasn’t defined by the car you drove, the area you lived in or your bank balance. It was how many books you had on your shelves.  30+ and you were middle class…
Putting the spurious class distinction aside, it seems to me that if you’re a reader, a real reader, then you have to have 150+ or ok, a very well used ereader.
Then the quality. I like friends with eclectic minds rather than narrow obsessions: political philosophy should rub shoulders with crime fiction, and poetry can live happily next to guides on bonsai-growing.
Do you judge someone by the books they own?
How about this list (taken by me from a list of nearly 500)

Why I Am Not A Christian, by Bertrand Russell

Poems Of W.B. Yeats

Sons And Lovers by DH Lawrence

Out Of My Later Years by Albert Einstein

The House Of The Dead, by Fyodor Dostoevsk

Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie

Democracy In America by Alexis De Tocqueville

A Book About Bees by Edwin Way Teale

Nana by Emile Zola

Memories Of A Catholic Girlhood, by Mary McCarthy

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Five books by or about Sigmund Freud

Ulysses by James Joyce

Flower Arranging For Fun by Hazel Peckinpaugh Dunlop

What you reckon about the owner? A person you’d like to meet? Someone you could talk to and maybe be friends with?

They all belonged to Marilyn Munro and you can read the full list HERE.

The research is the work of novelist Tania Hanks and apparently Marilyn was reading The Rights Of Man by Thomas Paine during the filming of Some Like It Hot. (Bet Tony Curtis wasn’t.)

Maybe you can only really know someone if you the know the books they are reading….

9 comments on “Can you judge someone by the books on their shelves?

  1. Laura Wilkinson
    March 30, 2013

    Interesting post. I do love to see what’s on people’s book shelves too, and I’ve seen this list of Marilyn’s before. Dumb blonde she wasn’t! I’m not sure how many books there are in my house – at a rough guess I’d say in the region of 1000 plus, if I include the children’s. There’d be more if the house was larger.

  2. bridget whelan
    March 30, 2013

    Looking at the full list, I think her book shelves must have been her university. Ok, some may have been unwanted/unread gifts and I wonder about the only Zola on the list. Why Nana, the story of the fabulously successful courtesan who comes to a wretched end? Is that how she saw herself or how someone else saw her? I’m not convinced by her fiction choices – many smack of things she should read (we’ve all done that, haven’t we?) but her non fiction seem to be a journey, an exploration…Yep, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, she wasn’t dumb and she wasn’t blond….

  3. creativityorcrazy
    March 30, 2013

    This was interesting and I never would have guessed she read so diversely. I think for some people, the books they read can give you more of a perspective as to their real inner being. I have to admit to looking at the titles of books on the shelves in the homes I visit. The saddest have been homes with children where very few books are found.

    • bridget whelan
      March 30, 2013

      I was just about to say you’re so right, a home with children and without books is a sad home until I remembered my childhood. There was a few medical text books from the days before my mother married and she was training to be a nurse. And a bible that my Dad had been persuaded to buy from a door to door salesman but that was it. (I’m making it sound like Little House on the Prairie – this was central London.) But we did have a wonderful children’s library and went there every week and my mother made sure we read the books we took out so what she didn’t spend in money she spent in time. I guess regular access to books is the key which is where a decent library service is so important. Not only can they provide the books – they can instil the enthusiasm for stories too…

  4. Kath
    March 30, 2013

    I have 1000+ books, I’d guess. I haven’t counted – and I add to them on a weekly basis! They sprawl over four rooms of the house and half are boxed up in plastic boxes. I’d hope not to judge anyone by the books in their home, it reassures me when people have them – I think I’d be more likely to judge someone who had none, or none in evidence anyway!

    • bridget whelan
      March 30, 2013

      The judging bit is funny, isn’t it. Some books somehow just get washed into your home, don’t they? Mind you, a whole shelf devoted to Jeffrey Archer would suggest a basic incompatibility….

  5. marina72
    March 30, 2013

    Thanks Bridget! One minor point – I’m Tara Hanks, not Tania 🙂

    • bridget whelan
      March 30, 2013

      Doh! Proof positive I will never become a copy editor. Thank you TARA for all your hard work in researching Marilyn’s reading – I was really moved to learn that she had a copy of The Rights of Man with her when filming Some Like it Hot. I’m not altogether sure what that says about her. Something more than a striving for knowledge I suspect, a desire to be taken more seriously, to be seen as a woman who could think as well as fill out a dress.Did it backfire? Was she teased or did people make snide comments behind her back?

  6. Vikki Thompson
    April 2, 2013

    Wow, interesting post Bridget 🙂

    Im off to check out the full list!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


This entry was posted on March 30, 2013 by in Views and tagged , .


%d bloggers like this: