What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

My friends, look upon this book:

book ideal bookshelf

My Ideal Bookshelf — I found at the library. It’s a collection of writers, actors, musicians, artists — cultural movers and shakers — talking about their favorite books.

As I read it, I was struck by a couple thoughts. For one, I’m woefully under-read. Not only have I not read most of the books listed, many I’ve never heard of. It’s shameful, really.

Another thought: this book is strangely voyeuristic. Like you’re peeking into their personal lives and getting a sense of what makes them tick.

But really, isn’t that what our bookshelves do? They tell a story of our interests and hobbies, our upbringing and education level, even our fears or obsessions.

And tell the truth, when visiting someone’s home, don’t you look at the titles on their bookshelves and judge them just a little, based on what you find? (Yeah, me too.)

Knowing full well you’ll probably judge me for this, I’m going to pull out a few of the titles on my shelf that I think describe me best. These are the ones I either read over and over again, or I’m deeply sentimental about them. So much so, that moving them from Phoenix to Minnesota was a no-brainer.

(Note: Nearly all links lead to abebooks.com, my favorite site for buying used books.)

My bookshelf and me

On the far right is my Betty Crocker’s Boys & Girls Cookbook. I think it was a gift when I was in the fourth grade and I credit it for igniting my love of cooking. Right next to it are Anderson’s Fairy Tales and Blackbeard’s Ghost. I read those two over and over again all through my youth, and to this day have a strong preference for fantasy. Oh, and that fat book toward the left without a binding or cover? That’s a book of poetry, both silly and serious, that my dad often read or quoted from. I believe it explains my penchant for dark humor:

Willie saw some dynamite,
Couldn’t understand it quite;
Curiosity seldom pays:
It rained Willie seven days.

Next up, let’s consider my teen years: That Certain Something, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and way over on the left, Dr. Zhivago. Probably the weirdest collection for a teenage girl to be found. That Certain Something is a book on developing charm, of all things. You might say it was the first self-help book I ever read. It even has a quiz at the end to see how charming you are. (Note: for those of a certain age, the author was Arlene Francis — she of game show fame.)

As for Jonathan LS … well, as a matter of fact, yes. I was one of those teenage girls who thought Jonathan was deep. Truly deep, man.


Dr. Zhivago is when my serious reading began. It took three attempts and a course in Russian history before I finally understood the novel was waaaay more than a love story. I felt oh-so-smart when I figured it out, and in the process learned some books are worth a second (or third) try.

From there it was an easy jump to other classics, my favorites being The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice. And then there’s Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rölvaag.

Never heard of it? Neither did I until I heard a portion of it on the radio. I immediately ordered two copies, one for me and one for my dad. Reason being, the book is about Norwegian immigrants to the Dakota territories and it opens with a man walking ahead of their ox-pulled wagon — the same story my dad told about his grandfather.

Later when my dad was hospitalized with congestive heart failure, I visited him. He brought up the novel and I found out things I never knew — like how his dad would tell him stories of trolls and other folk tales, and I learned more details about his mom’s depression after his dad died (in the book, the main character’s wife suffers from mental illness). My dad passed away a few months after our impromptu book discussion. Some books you enjoy, some you recommend, others hold treasured memories. Giants in the Earth is all of those things for me.

Closing in on our Final Five, you’ll see there’s Lanterns & Lances by James Thurber. I’ve mentioned before this served as inspiration for the Feeding on Folly moniker, and as I said in my ‘about me’ page, I’m a huge Thurber fan. This book doesn’t include his most well-known writings, but it’s about 60 years old and it smells lovely.

As I Live and Breathe, A Sense of the Morning, and Here Be Dragons were all accidental discoveries. Either found in used bookstores or at a “friends of the library” sale, they weren’t my usual choices of reading but became instant favorites. As I Live and Breathe is a sweet, humorous tale of the author and his wife in the ’40s and ’50s. A Sense of the Morning contains essays on nature, but it’s so much more than that. This book reminds me how to look at the world with a sense of wonder. And Here Be Dragons… well, that book taught me way more about the world than any science class did. If you have any interest in evolution or plate tectonics, or even if you don’t have interest, read this book. It explains things better than anything else I’ve read.

That leaves us with Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Hands down, my favorite book on writing. Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself and thinking I’ll never write anything good, it helps to think of this book and picture Lamott whispering over my shoulder, “go ahead, get that shitty first draft done.” (Hmm. Might be time to reread this one.)

And there you have it, 15 of the books from my shelves. I could have shown you more, but these are the ones I feel influenced me the most – either as a writer, a reader, or simply as a human being (if being human were so simple).

And now it’s your turn. Think about the books you’ve read that made you who you are today. They might be ones you prominently display on your bookshelf, or it may be you read it once and can’t get out of your head.

List them in the comments below or, if you have a blog, write about them on your site and link it here. I’d love to get more book recommendations. After all, I’ve got some extra space on my bookshelves just aching to be filled.

my bookshelf for featured photo

34 thoughts on “What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

  1. Thanks for sharing your bookshelf. 🙂

    I also enjoyed Blackbeard’s Ghost and frequently re-read Huckleberry Finn. My adult favourites are Pride and Prejudice, Out of Africa and Handmaid’ s Tale (I read it when it first came out and it remains a favourite).

    1. Finally, another Blackbeard fan! Most people I know never heard of the book.
      I wasn’t keen on Handmaid’s Tale but it may have been because I listened to the audio book and the narrator’s voice annoyed me. I’ve since learned to stop and return the audio book when that happens, as it taints my enjoyment too much. (Maybe I’m just too much of a print gal!)

  2. Fun to read your list! I’ve done one such post, but it’s lame by comparison to this. I love how you and your dad bonded over books. Hilarious poem about Willie😂. Yeah, count me in on Jonathan LS. Yeesh.

    I got into history early with the John Jakes series that started with The Bastard. I love anything with time travel. As for classics, I’ve read many, but I think the books we need to read find us. The heck with what other people think are “the greats.” I’ll always love Twain. Oh, if I could write like that…!!

    1. Funny about Jonathan, isn’t it? I kept the book partly because it’s a pretty edition and it was a gift, but mostly because it reminds me of that period in my life. I guess that goes for the book on acquiring charm too. (Never quite mastered the charm though. Shame, that.)

      You know, I never read John Jakes. Shelved his books many times when I worked at a library, but never read any. Maybe I should correct that. 🙂

  3. Ooh ! This is a post after my own heart. My bookshelf now is loaded with Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse books- almost every one of them. Then there are the Paddington books, the Anne of Green Gables books, the L M Alcott books, a lot of books by Roald Dahl. But my all time favorite book would be( which copy I don’t have now) is the Far Pavilions. About what is common among all these, these are books with good English, clean and most with morals. So that is who I am and thank you for letting us peek at your bookshelf.

    1. *Gasp* I love PG Wodehouse! The audios of those books are great too, especially if you’re traveling. We used to check them out at the library whenever we took a road trip and they never failed to keep us entertained.
      I just looked up Far Pavilions (embarrassed to admit I never heard of it) and now must order the book. One of the reviews said it was “a masterpiece of storytelling.” That’s good enough for me! Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂

  4. The fact that you still have several books that you loved as a child says a lot about your love of reading. Growing up, I mostly read the sports page of the newspaper and Rolling Stone magazine. In my early 20s, I discovered Ayn Rand’s books, and I still have a copy of Atlas Shrugged. I also read all of the historical fiction of James A. Michener, including Iberia, which I am re-reading while traveling through Spain. Some of my additional “keepers” are Jack Kerouac, David Guterson, and John Steinbeck.

    1. Yes, I remember your Michener in the back pocket story. Sorry, still have trouble believing that. 😉
      I am a card-carrying member of Team Steinbeck. Sometime I’ll show you my t-shirt. As for your books, there seems to be a theme of travel going on there. Coincidence? I think not.

  5. Oh, you’re going to be shocked, but I don’t actually have any “proper” fiction reading books on my bookshelf. I have some craft books, my Graeme Base illustrated verse books, my Footrot Flats cartoon collection, some family genealogy books (not my interest, but my Mum’s), my childrens baby books for their first 2 years, and now 2 dozen or so books for my 2 year old grandson. I used to have many, many fiction books, fantasy and scifi mostly, back in the day (none of what some folks would call the “classics”). Some I read a few times, most only once. I’m not great at re-reading books – unless there are decades between readings! In the end I sold/gave them away. This is me, I love the library and kindle these days – any book you want to read you can.

    1. I didn’t show you the shelf filled with my knitting and gardening books, and one whole shelf devoted to Charles Schulz (Peanuts comic).
      I kind of regret getting rid of some of the books we read to our kids. In truth, most were paperbacks and not in good condition, but there were others we could have kept. I do, however, have their baby books prominently displayed, as well as a box of their artwork. 🙂

  6. A lovely reflection on the greatest reflection of a life – the books read and treasured and kept and worn to a stub through re-reading. Those. And the ones we didn’t quite get and go back to and find after all something that we adore. Or learn from. Or both. Both is good. My own shelves are packed in boxes in France – here I have my husband’s secrets with the odd addition that I have not been able to resist snatching from the book table in Cambridge or borrowing so many times from the library that I relent and buy it after all. And the books my mother sends. Those. All tell a story but I think I might keep it to myself ….

    1. To own the truth, I withheld some books as I wasn’t ready to let them tell their secrets. Another time, another time…
      Speaking of not being able to resist a book, before we left Phoenix I realized with alarm that I packed ALL the books and had nothing to read on the trip! *gasp* I remedied that quickly by stopping at a Barnes & Noble and wound up with a book I not only enjoyed, but was in awe of its writing. The author was Jessmyn Ward, someone I never heard of before, but wow. She can knock out a tale like a champ.

      1. Jeepers…. that was a hyperventilation moment to be sure! This Jessmyn Ward must be sort out chez moi … we love a good tale weaver here. Quel surprise 😉

  7. What a delightfully candid post! Agreed on Bird By Bird and I thought JL Seagull was far out too. At least until I had a bout of flu in my mid thirties and it was within reach without leaving my bed 😉 I moved around so much I liquidated most of my books, except for first editions and books of sentimental value. Since I’ve been here I picked up another set of the Narnia Chronicles, the great divorce, the complete Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen, as well as Strunk and White’s elements of style, Stephen King’s On Writing and Rich Mullins’ The World as I Remember It. I really have too many favorites to list.

    1. Anne Lamott is the best, isn’t she?
      Your comment made me remember that I am currently Strunk & White-less. I loaned it to someone who never returned it, and now I am many states away. Must order a new copy of that puppy. Also, am trying to imagine JLS while in the grip of the flu. 😀

  8. It’s wonderful to have so many readers here. I am aghast when I go into a house with absolutely no books in it. It’s like having a chair without a light next to it. Oh wait, that would be for reading.

    I had the same cookbook that I then passed along to my daughter for her children. I am a sucker for a good mystery: Tony Hillerman, Sue Grafton, and Dick Francis being some of my first and still my favorite (all of them sadly now deceased but two of the three having passed along their love of writing to their offspring thank goodness).

    I too regularly read Wendell Berry – including his poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. He’s one of the best thinkers I know and draws you into his fiction like no other. And of course, regularly going on adventures with JRR Tolkien (the Ring series) and CS Lewis (Space Trilogy) is important in our home.

    And yes, I do have a bookshelf devoted to building, sewing, crafts and my art of jewelry making. And my husband, being a poet, has a large collection of poetry books along with history, theology and philosophy books. Suffice it to say we have book shelves in every room and hallway in our home. I certainly think visitors would just get overwhelmed trying to gain any insights by what is on the shelves.

    1. Oh, I must say your home sound absolutely delightful! Really, a bookshelf in every room? Sounds marvelous!
      So I ordered a couple Wendell Berry because somehow I missed him the first half (2/3rds?) of my life. The rest of yours I’m familiar with and in total agreement.

      Just so you know, in our home every chair has a light. It just has to be. You’ve inspired me with the bookshelf notion. Now measuring wall next to bathroom sink. 😉

      1. Really, there’s two in our front room and five in our study. The kitchen / dining room share one for my cookbooks that nestles against our kitchen island. We dream / scheme about making closet doors into bookcases with a secret storage closet behind. We have a few resident Bibles in the bathroom but no book cases. So you’d have us beat there.

        You won’t regret time spent with Mr Berry. He is truly a delightful author.

        One slightly obscure author I forgot to mention is my husband’s great aunt Marie Sandoz. She grew up in Nebraska, influencing her writing (about native Americans) that is immersive reading. We have 3 different copies of her book Crazy Horse. And a whole shelf of her other books. Her book Cheyenne Autumn was made into a movie. As is often the case, the book is far better than the movie. I’ve read Crazy Horse 3 times and writing about it is making me think it’s up for another read through.

  9. How in the world did I get so far behind with your missives? Please forgive.

    I’m going to cheat a bit with this one. There is a large, glass-doored bookcase next to my writing desk, and I have randomly selected five titles with no strategy in mind: “The Wings of the Morning” by Thomas Tryon, “Murrow: His Life and Times” by A. M. Sperber, “A Conspiracy of Paper” by David Liss, “The Volcano Lover” by Susan Sontag and “Another City, Not My Own” by Dominick Dunne.

    Here’s the kicker: I haven’t read any of them. And that, possibly sadly, is the overriding theme of my book collection. I have many hundreds of books (I’ve probably broken the “thousand” threshold) shoved hither and yon, the fallout of my intense obsession with used books stores. (And this is AFTER I broke down several years ago and reluctantly set free most of my paperbacks, as things were out of control.) I will never be able to read all of them, but the stacks of endless possibilities thrill me greatly…

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