Shelf Life: Book Shame

Shelved books
Category: Reading

Book shame. We’ve all experienced it and hidden a book we don't want anyone else to see.

I can personally admit to squirrelling books away from the eyes of friends, carefully deciding what’s okay to read on the train and forgetting to mention some of the things I’m currently reading. All because I’m embarrassed. But why do books have this power over us?

I suspect that ‘book shame’ is a condition we’ve all been faced with at some stage. It comes with the territory of being ‘a reader’. As a reader you - often unknowingly – construct a ‘reading identity’ and the books you read may reflect elements of your personality, lifestyle, interests and views.

For this reason, having your books on view in your living room or on your lap on the train can feel like an invasion of privacy. What if you don’t want the world to know you love reading about the intricacies of flower pressing, the history of Soviet stamp production or Fifty Shades of Grey?

Fifty Shades of Grey
In sharing your bookshelf or your reading habits, you share elements of yourself with the world. Which can be scary. Books tell other people things about us, things we might not want them to know, things we might not even know ourselves!

In some ways, books are a bit like your friends - there are the reliable ones you visit often, the spontaneous ones you didn’t think you’d get along with and the mildly embarrassing ones that make a scene and love challenging people’s views. But they all have their place and I wouldn’t change them.

Perhaps I’m so aware of my book shame because I know just how nosey I am about others’ reading habits. I find it irresistible to go into someone’s house and not sneak a look at their bookshelves. I want to know immediately if we’ve read any of the same books, if there are any quirky titles that might let me know the person better, and I’m also looking for books I might want to read.

Reading is – more often than not - a solitary activity. It’s something quite private and our relationships with books can be very personal. So it can be alarming to suddenly have your private ‘book life’ catapulted into the world.

Recently I very publicly read Simon Garfield's Just my Type (a history of typography) on a plane. I didn’t suffer any full-on book shame, although I did clock just how loudly my book was shouting the fact that I'm a typography geek. The only thing that happened on the journey was the person next to me stopped reading their book and started reading mine over my shoulder. I wasn’t expecting this but it made me rather pleased – have I sparked an interest in typography in someone else?

I am trying to (slowly) dissolve any book shame I experience. It’s good to read and share books with others. And for the ones I’m not ready to share with the world yet, there’s always my e-reader…

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