The bookshelves of other people are fascinating. What do they tell you?

When I’m invited to other people’s homes, I appreciate when one of the rooms I get to be in features a bookcase. It’s always worth studying. When staying at a friend’s place, I love it when the guestroom features a bookcase to rummage through. A friend’s taste in books won’t mirror my own, but chances are it will be compatible, and so his or her shelves are an ideal hunting ground, a preselected bookshop, if you will. I found Terry Tempest Williams work that way, because a friend I was staying with had a copy of Refuge in her guestroom. I was staying for three nights, i.e. enough time to get far enough into the book to get hooked. From the bookshelf of my friend in Shanghai I got to take home Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, a haunting novel about Shanghai that I read for most of my 14-hour flight.

In my bedroom at the VCCA, I kept studying the built-in bookcase next to the sink. Unlike a friend’s collection, no curated hand was visible here; no unifying taste was evident. What do old copies of the Southern Review, Shenandoah, and Open City have in common with Tennyson’s Poetical Works, a gothic novel, and D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox?

This was a most eclectic accumulation of reading material, and it made me wonder who had left them behind. Some offered clues as they were clearly donations of books or literary magazine pieces that had been written at the VCCA. Some were deliciously old books labeled “Lipson Collection,” which are part of the Marcia Lipson Collection at the VCCA library. And many simply must be discarded reading material left by fellows.

For all my studying those three shelves full of reading material, I didn’t spot the one that was most interesting to me until my very last evening. More on that tomorrow!