What Your Bookshelves Say About You

I don't even know what my bookshelves say about me, but it seemed like a good title, especially in the light of those lockdown interviews, in which the celebrity or politician is carefully positioned in front of a shelf full of significant books.

Here are some of mine, even though I haven't done any interviews. The room where I'm lucky enough to work is full of books, and there is very little rhyme or reason to their arrangement - but I more or less know where everything is.

There's a loose subject matter theme to it all, and for a particular project, I'll gather lots of books together. So for a while, researching A Proper Person to be Detained, I was sitting among heaps of books and maps about nineteenth century Leeds, while the picture below shows the shelves that held - and still do hold - all the books about Robert Burns that I gradually amassed while I was researching The Jewel.
Burns among others.

On the rare occasions when I've been persuaded to sort everything out, I've needed a particular book almost immediately, gone looking for it in the old place and realised that I didn't have a scoobie where it was. So now, I weed out books I don't mind recycling, but I try to leave the rest more or less as they are.

All the same, the books don't stay in one place. They migrate. In fact I'm pretty sure they breed. So there are art and craft and antique books in my husband's office/studio, where I also keep most of my antique textiles (well out of the way of the paint), there's a shelf of novels in the living room, cookery books in the kitchen and heaps of our son's books in his room that has gradually become a comfortable spare room, although visitors are still treated to large tomes on Game Design and Discrete Mathematics.

Two things surprised me a bit about the celebrity books on display. One involved shelves full of 'colour coded' books that I'm told is an interior design thing. But no reader, surely, would do this? How on earth could you colour code a thousand books. Oh wait - most people don't have a thousand books.

I mostly read fiction on my Kindle now. I read in bed, in the dark, and I'm there, in the world of the book. But if I really love a book, or if it's written by a friend, I will often buy a paper copy as well.

The other thing that surprised me was people scoffing at writers actually having their own books on their shelves. Here are some of mine. Generally, nobody sees them but me. This is, after all, my workspace and few people are ever invited into it.


But why should people be surprised at writers having copies of their own books? Would you be surprised at Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh having a garden? The fact is that on publication, we are given a handful of author copies. We give some away to close family or to people who have been helpful, but we generally have a few copies left. Then we often buy our own books to sell at various events because that's one of the ways in which we make our income. We may even sell signed copies online.

Also, on those days when we wonder why the hell we are doing this, we can at least look at them and figure that it might not have been a terrible waste of time. Most books are the product of many months of hard work and sleepless nights. We like to think that it hasn't all been in vain. Having something tangible is a good way of countering imposter syndrome. 

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