If a Book Can be Judged by its Cover, Can a Person be Judged by Their Bookshelf?

Joel J. Miller

I spent half of Saturday organizing my library. I’ve always had an unwieldy number of books, more volumes than space, and it requires a fair amount of shuffling around and reordering to get them all to sit there in a way that’s useful to me and tolerable to my wife.

It’s pure joy. Sorting through my library is therapeutic. There are few things more intellectually restorative than a casual browse of books you love.

*Photo by Wonderlane, Creative Commons

A journey through your shelves allows you to get reacquainted with old friends and relations, books that might have triggered a line of thinking that still holds you now. In his 1946 essay, “Books v. Cigarettes,” George Orwell called these books those “that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life.” They are like signs that tell of your altered course, the various turns in your story. I have several titles like that. I may never read them again, but I will never be the same again for having read them just once.

Then there are the books you come back to, the books you read again and again. I have several like that as well, and have written about that here. Some of these may be the course-altering volumes, but they might just be books that evoke a certain mood or remind you of a particular time or place. When your eyes pick up the train of those familiar lines, they have the power to transport you.

Orwell also talked about “books that one dips into but never reads through.” I read a blurb for Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, calling it not a page-turner, but a page-lingerer. With these books, it might hardly matter if you never read the whole thing. Even a few pages does you good and widens your soul.

Some books are disposable. They leave little mark on the mind. It could be a novel, something one of your professors insisted was brilliant but really wasn’t, or even a Christian living book you feel guilty about not liking. Don’t sweat it. Some books are more foam than beer. If and when you are faced with reducing your library, don’t hesitate giving these ones the shove.

But weigh the decision seriously. Books that cut a new groove are usually worth keeping.

All of these words and phrases — alter, become part of you, soul-widening, and cut — say something about what books do to us. They make obligations on us. They force certain reckonings, and we are different after the encounter, sometimes only marginally so, other times substantially.

That means that your library says less about your intellectual identity than it does about your intellectual development. It’s a record of your journey, the underlines and marginalia like scribblings on a vast map of the soul.

We always see something of ourselves in any books that matter to us. Don’t be alarmed if it’s an old version of yourself. We are continually growing and developing, and the books we read are part of that development. Looking back, they serve as road markers for the way we’ve come.

Joel J. Miller

Joel J. Miller

Joel J. Miller