Learning About Ourselves Through Our Bookshelves


Imagine you are an explorer in a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape who comes across an abandoned house. The occupants are long departed but all their belongings are still there. Which of the objects in the house should you look at first to understand what kind of people the former inhabitants were? My suggestion is that you start by looking over their books.

But we don’t have to wait for a nuclear winter to perform this thought experiment on our own personal libraries. The books we possess stand for the things we now are, or once were, truly interested in. They are not the most utilitarian of our possessions. They don’t keep us in physical comfort. They aren’t food or fuel. The only reason to acquire a book is to have a specific interest in the things it talks about. This may make our personal libraries more representative of us than the other objects that accumulate in our houses.

With this germ of an idea, I’ve been trying to view my books as a way to re-inspect myself as a third person, to untangle from the mess of routine for a little while.

I have been fortunate to have collected quite a few books over my lifetime. Like Umberto Eco’s ‘Antilibrary’, most of these books are yet to be read. Some I’ve read once or more than once. The rest are being gathered as a squirrel collects acorns for life’s long winter. But all of them represent my interests, aspirations, the things I’m curious about, ideas to challenge my comprehension and stretch my mind.

Being a little obsessive about tracking things, I have added and categorised all my books in a database application. They are classified by format (paperback, hardcover, Kindle book, non-Kindle e-book), and separately by genre. Classification is tricky because genres overlap, books fit more than one genre, genres can be overly broad or overly narrow, etc.

But for now they are frozen as follows:

I posed a series of questions to myself as I examined my book database. Some of the answers were surprising. These led to unexpected insights that were at variance with the picture of myself that I had in my head. The specific answers in my case will be irrelevant to the reader, but I’m naming them in the hope that they may persuade the reader to carry out their own exercise.

Which genre is the most represented in my books? Fiction, comprising 32% of all my books. Without the data I would have guessed Fiction to represent at most 10%.

Which genres have a higher percentage of books than I expected them to have? It turned out that I had more history books than books on mathematics (unexpected), more books on biology than books on philosophy (very unexpected), and more books on religion and meditation than books on programming and computer science (perhaps a little embarrassing as programming is what I do for a living).

Which genre has the most books that I haven’t read at all? Mathematics. What did this tell me about myself? I may have been a little optimistic (and insincere) about the depth of my interest in the subject. Or maybe this is something I am interested in but avoid because the perceived difficulty scares me.

Which genres have I acquired the most books in and how has this changed over the years? This was a measure of how my interests have changed over time. Filtering by year and tracking which genre contained the most books, it looks they shifted from Artificial Intelligence to Biology to Neuroscience to Probability Theory to Finance to Puzzles to Buddhism to Animal Behaviour (since adopting a dog).

Which books have I read more than a few times? The Complete Sherlock Holmes. The Predictors by Thomas Bass (describing a group of physicists who were among the first to apply machine learning to the financial markets). Vehicles by Valentino Braitenberg (a fascinating discussion of neuroscience by theoretical simulation of insect nervous systems). Hackers by Steven Levy (on early programmers, not computer break-ins). Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. PG Wodehouse. Short stories by Borges. This was a fair representation of the things I’m really interested in, but would be hard put to recall from memory.

Which books should I read again? Lolita. The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. Tom Sharpe’s Wilt. Even Sherlock Holmes. This was an opportunity to think about other things that I once enjoyed but have fell out of.

Which books have I not read that I really should? The Lord of the Rings trilogy (because I did enjoy The Hobbit). The Stainless Steel Rat books by Harry Harrison. The unread Chuck Palahniuk. What are other things related to my present interests that I have never tried?

If I had a year left to live, which of these unread books I would still be compelled to read? This was a difficult list to make. Books on the bucket list were some books on the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of ethics, poetry, buddhism and interviews with Nabokov and Borges. But these were not books I had been planning to read in the near future. Why not? Why these books in particular? This is worth thinking about (and I’m still thinking about it.)

The list of questions to ask of the data is endless. Perhaps this essay is enough to encourage you, dear reader, to take another look at your own bookshelves. You might find an unexpected biography of yourself hidden among the paperbacks.