It’s Labor Day, which means long-weekend time. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent many a Labor Day Past as a houseguest – it’s really the perfect amount of time to be a houseguest if you arrive on Friday just in time for drinks and leave on Monday right after coffee, remembering to call and send flowers to your hosts on the trip back…
Many people consider their houseguest status a license to snoop through the medicine cabinet and nightstand drawers. Tsk tsk, how rude...I say, why not peruse something simultaneously allowed and more revealing? I’m talking, of course, about people’s bookshelves. Before I discuss why, a brief digression…
My blog entry title today is a homage to the superb film
Lives of Others which was about how an East German intelligence operative’s attic surveillance of a top theater director and his actor girlfriend changes everything for all three of them. One of the most extraordinary moments in the film for me was when the director is reading some classic poetry (the kind not sanctioned by the DDR’s cultural regime), and the operative’s face slowly, slowly, slowly lights up with the power and beauty of the lines he is hearing.
To me, gazing at “the books of others” is a less transgressive but often no less transformative method of cultural eavesdropping. You might learn that your host has never read anything besides every Stephen King novel ever published, or you might discover that your friend arranges her books by color. You might laugh upon finding that your aunt and uncle keep a shelf full of college textbooks, or be shocked to see that your best friend has a serious romance habit.
But just as often as you see the silly, the shocking, and the superficial, you may find gold: A well-loved set of Trollope. A collection of magazines that you’ve never heard of before but must learn about immediately. A curated bookshelf of World War I history. A novel you’d completely forgotten but will now re-read. Your face begins to light up with possibility.
The last time I had the chance to gaze meaningfully at someone else’s bookshelves was a few months ago while staying with a dear old friend whose books I’ve seen many many times over the years – yet I always learn something new about her when I look at them, and therefore something new about myself, too.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with “the books of others.” Won’t you share? I hope everyone has had a good, relaxing long weekend.