The Upstairs Bookcase

My downstairs bookcase

I love to know what people are reading when they think no one’s watching.

When I’m in an airport or on a bus, I’ll pretend to tie my shoe so I can bend over and see the covers of the books people are reading.  I’ll go to the bathroom and take a quick peek over shoulders on my way back. 

Inquiring minds want to know.

Most people are reading something you’d expect, but I’m on the hunt for the person who’s got the guts to go against type.  Just once I want to find a gray-templed business executive in a three piece suit who’s reading Nora Roberts instead of Stephen Covey.

That’s why I’m against e-books.  No snooping possible.

In theory, I should be fascinated by all the recent glimpses of celebrity bookcases.

You know what I’m talking about.  Now that every celebrity, newscaster, and talk show host is Zooming (we can use this as a verb now, right?) from home, we get a look at their home offices.

And their bookcases.

This has prompted a rash of Twitter posters to painstakingly identify blurry titles and newspaper articles analyzing the contents of said shelves.

Cate Blanchett’s downstairs bookcase

Much has been made of the fact that Cate Blanchett owns all twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Kate Middleton has a collection of Penguin Classics (including titles by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, of course) that quite frankly, look like they’ve never been opened, much less read.  Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, has biographies of U.S. presidents by Doris Kearns Goodwin, among other history books. 

Kate and the most downstairs book collection ever

No less than the New York Times ran an article that asked, “What Do Famous People’s Bookshelves Reveal?”

The article begins, “In quarantine, people are inadvertently exposing their reading habits.

Au contraire, New York Times.  There is nothing “inadvertent” about these books.  Every book was carefully selected—or at the very least, undesirables were culled from the shelves—before they turned the cameras on.

They are showing their downstairs bookcase.

I should know, because I have one myself. 

The downstairs bookcase is the one you want guests to see.  Bookworms always peruse each other’s shelves.  The downstairs bookcase is a testament to your literary bonafides, your good taste, your identification papers proving you’re in on the zeitgeist.

No reader is immune to the temptation of bragging in their downstairs bookcase.

Mine has Harry Potter, a hardback Jane Austen anthology Kate Middleton could love, literary novels, some poetry.  All are in pristine condition.  I’ve read them all (only a complete literary poseur would dare showcase books they hadn’t read in their downstairs bookcase).  I enjoy them all.  They’re not just for show.

And yet.

If you want to know the heart and soul of my reading life—of anyone’s— you have to find their upstairs bookcase.  The one that’s tucked away in the office no one else enters.  It doesn’t even have to be a bookcase.  It can be the back of a closet or the bottom drawer of a bedside table.

It’s the place you keep your books with spines cracked from all the re-reading, with coffee rings, and beloved passages marked with stars.  The books you would run into a burning building to save, because while you could buy a new copy, they are irreplaceable.

It’s where you keep the books that are pure pleasure, guilty pleasures if you believe you must feel bad about what you read.  Books you take to bed with you and read until dawn.  Books whose movies you detest because they got the casting and the ending all wrong.  Books that cut so close to the bone they hurt to read.

My upstairs bookcase (one of several) – I promise I didn’t pretty it up for the picture…

To see a downstairs bookcase is to see a person’s reading dressed up for a black-tie wedding—lipstick on, every hair sprayed and pinned into place.

The upstairs bookcase?

That’s your reading life in a cozy bathrobe with nothing on underneath.

So famous people, don’t waste my time with your carefully curated picture-perfect libraries that show me nothing other than how you want me to see you.

Have some guts.

Show me your upstairs bookcase.

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