Book Collecting Tells Stories, Too

Cataloging the books in my possession has never really occurred to me before as a method for drawing conclusions about myself. However, the truth is that a lot of who I am rests in how I spend my time – It just so happens that much of my time is spent reading.

What was revealed:

Above all, the process of data collection proved to be frustrating at times. Each book that I picked up to catalog posed different challenges. E-books oftentimes did not list publishing dates or cities, Bibles can neither be considered fiction nor nonfiction (getting into that discussion would be opening a completely different can of worms), and my dictionary naturally had no single author. Looking back, exasperation accounted for much of my emotion during the experience.

Additionally, I was surprised to find that I was in possession of more books than I had originally thought. My collection of e-books is compact within an e-reader, which originally gave me the impression that I had relatively few books in my possession. As well as this, I found myself having to uncover books from unintentional hiding places, such as the back of my drawer or underneath a stack of notebooks. This to me represented the vague notion of what it means to be a book historian: revealing the hiding places of books that had long since been forgotten.

What was concealed:

As many of us have probably noticed, our book collections here at school are not necessarily a good representation of our entire book history. In a way, this exercise concealed my true reading habits by limiting the pool of books from which to collect data to those that I have here at school.

For each book I cataloged, I found myself trying to recall whether or not I had enjoyed the experience of reading it. This undocumented recollection as to my memory of reading each text made me realize a possible shortcoming of book history: a book’s existence within my collection does not suggest that I wish it to be there. True, my possession of each text does have meaning, but how significant is that meaning if I had a poor experience with the book? Does this shortcoming really matter in the long run?

How might it be changed to tell a different story?

Changing the criteria that I used to catalog my books would serve to complicate my findings in an interesting way and change the story that could be told from my data. For example, my curiosity during the cataloging process influenced me to add additional columns to my data spreadsheet to answer some of my questions: Is there a correlation between my identity as a female and the genders of the authors that I choose to read? How many of the books in my collection have bookmarks to indicate the fact that they have been temporarily abandoned? How many of my books were bought with the intention of my reading them while never actually fulfilling that intent? I began to alter my cataloging criteria in such ways that, if nothing else, would tell me even more interesting things about myself as a reader. 

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5 thoughts on “Book Collecting Tells Stories, Too

  1. The need to add more to our data is probably a commonality amongst all of us, because there is so much more we can learn about the books we have and ourselves. It’s interesting that you considered your experience with a book. Just because it’s on your shelf doesn’t mean you loved it, but because it’s on your self others can look at that and make assumptions. Our reading habits, our personalities, and more can be judged based on what’s on our selves. It’s kind of scary to think about because no one else can know the truth behind your literary story.

  2. I think everyone is realizing that the books on our shelves are not representative of what we actually read. A lot of the books we enjoy we left at home; here we only have so much room for books, especially ones that aren’t school related. I think it makes you see the shortcomings in book history– some books are left behind even if they are meaningful to readers. In this case, there are certain circumstances that cause our information to be skewed and books to be “left behind,” but in more dated cases it could be for other reasons. There are also a lot of types of information that we aren’t really looking at that many historians are interested in. In many cases, I think book historians look at individual books and try to learn as much about the book as possible, in most cases we can learn just about anything we want in a book without even opening it thanks to the internet and other sources. In any case, the information presented is rarely representative of what we have.

  3. I enjoyed your discussion of “What was Concealed”. This is an extremely important observation; I recall visiting the personal library of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, and marveling at the diversity of his collection. We need to be careful about how we analyze a reader’s library. After all, not everyone with Marx on their bookshelf is a Marxist, nor every Bible-owner a Christian! It would be very interesting to analyze someone’s library who we knew to be very outspoken on a controversial issue, just to see what has been the source of their education!

    • I like that idea of examining a famous person’s library to see what books (may have) influenced them! Maybe for your final project …

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