Today has been World Book Day. I became aware of this fact when Catherine Hanley, @CathHanley, tweeted a picture of her bookshelves with the caption “I need more walls #WorldBookDay #shelfie”.

Yes, shelfie. It’s a thing. The etymology is obvious: a pun on selfie with shelf. Selfie was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013. They note that it was coined in 2002 – before then you didn’t even have the technical means to take a picture of yourself with your phone and post it online or email it – but it really took off in 2013, increasing in frequency of usage by some 17,000%. It’s not new for people to have some fascination with their personal appearance, or to seek approval of the same from others. It’s just become a lot easier and more instant – and more socially accepted.

But book lovers know that while your face may or may not be an open book, if you really want to know about a person, open their books. I know when I visit people I often have a look at their bookshelves to get a better sense of the fuller breadth and depth of their personality: what they like or have liked, what has fascinated them, what they have formally and informally pursued… Looking at a person’s bookshelf is like pouring some of the person into a glass, swirling it and sniffing it, swirling and sniffing again. The many hints and layered complexities of their personality flow around and peel back and flutter past, like a shower of flower petals or leaves through your senses. Not a full taste, not an ordered taste, but such an introduction, so much to see, so many little doors to open.

So when, more than a decade ago, I first made myself a personal website, for my “About James Harbeck” page I didn’t blather on about my personal traits and hopes and dreams and accomplishments, I simply answered at length the question, “What’s on your bookshelf?” (I’ve updated it since, as I keep adding more books.) Because your bookshelf is the book of your self.

Unless you don’t have one, of course. Books are heavy and a pain to move and they take up space. Some people prefer to borrow from the library. Some use e-readers and load them up with more books than I could fit if I filled my whole apartment with them. It’s not that there’s necessarily less to such people. It’s just that there’s less to look at when you visit them, fewer clues to the parts of them you may not get to know very soon otherwise.

I would have a hard time living in a place without full bookshelves, even though I spend more time on a computer, and what reading I do do is as often magazines as books. A library is my comfortable place. It’s not a cocoon or a shell; it’s worlds upon worlds. It’s flesh transformed: shelf. There is no substitute for the feel and smell of paper. Books you have read are trophies of sorts – but animal heads mounted on walls can’t talk to you or lead you on another chase if you want. My shelves are full of dreams waiting to be dreamed again.

So for people like me there is the shelfie. It’s a nice thing. It’s more shelf-centred than self-centred. You see not only the person’s choice of reading (the titles may not be legible at the resolution of a cell phone camera) but their choice of decor and their sense of organization. It’s a little glimpse into their sanctum sanctorum.

So, yes, since you’ve been waiting for it, here’s my shelfie.


5 responses to “shelfie

  1. Daniel E. Trujillo

    James, you have touched my heart with this post. Not many people understand the power of a shelf and the liberty it symbolizes. Not many people appreciate the majesty of books upon books and their piled up wisdom anymore. It is, truly, a thing of beauty.

    Daniel E. Trujillo M. @VolcadoDePila ________________________________

  2. Sometimes viewing the bookshelves of someone else reveals something about the personality of the viewer.

    A true story:

    I was asked to drive a visiting rabbi to the home of our rabbi. When we arrived, our rabbi was occupied with another matter and asked that we wait for him in his study. What does one do while waiting in a rabbi’s study? One looks at the books which fill the shelves on every wall.

    I’m looking over the English titles, and the visiting rabbi is looking over the many Hebrew ones. Suddenly the visiting rabbi pulls a book from the shelf. He opens it, rapidly scanning from page to page. The color drains from his face. He is now quite pale and agitated.

    Gradually he calms down, the color returns to his face. He slowly closes the book, kisses it, and replaces it on the shelf. I didn’t say anything. After all, he’s a rabbi and (on this occasion) I’m just his chauffeur.

    But then it happens again. The visitor pulls another book from the shelf. Again he flips the pages furiously. Again he becomes pale and seems upset. And again he regains his composure, kisses the book and puts it back on the shelf.

    This time I asked: “Rabbi, what was wrong with that book?”

    He smiled and replied: “Nothing. Nothing at all. For a moment I thought he had one I didn’t have.”

    Israel “Izzy” Cohen

  3. Brian Hitchcock

    You really do need more room for your books, Mr. Harbeck.
    Are you sure you need a kitchen or bathroom? Maybe they could be converted to a larger library….

    p.s. Nice chair!

    Brian Hitchcock
    Author of the (not-yet-published) book
    EX-Diabetic: Your Guide to Quitting Diabetes and Living Without It

  4. What a fantastic word! Your room looks like mine with books. 🙂

  5. Too many words, too many books, too many rabbis, clearly too much time on your hands. Welcome to 2015.

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