The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Ludwig was tagged by Emma. Someone claims that the 106 books listed in his post are displayed - unread - in the bookshelves of people who want to appear smart. I'm not sure I should do this tag because, well, other than Guns, Germs and Steel, none of these books is on my shelf. But it's a slow day and raining, so why not?

As Ludwig says, quite a bizarre list. The non-fiction part is particularly gappy and peculiar. Oh well.

Afterthoughts: Shefaly and Veena have made interesting points in their comments below. To me, the list is of less consequence than two questions that arise from the tag itself, so I've now taken it out of this post. The questions are:

1. Are there truly people who buy books not with a view to reading them, but to display them on their shelves to appear erudite?
2. And if there are such people, what sort of books would they have?

As evident from the comments, I don't know anyone who does this. Perhaps I've led a sheltered life. But clearly there are such individuals, otherwise there would be no readership for books like this one: How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, and this is ranked 28,885 on Amazon.

With regard to the second question, I suppose this bears some thinking about, and should probably form another post (per Shefaly's suggestion).


Shefaly said...

Feanor: The memes are getting more and more random and arbitrary now.

Usha Vaidyanathan of Ageless Bonding wrote a response to this meme too and my view is still the same as it was then.

Any list that puts the Life Of Pi near Wuthering Heights just cannot have street-cred in the Readers' Avenue. What is the point of listing Freakonomics with Catch-22? Or The Prince with Satanic Verses?

And there are people, who do not read fiction. I know because I am one of them. I have been called a "snob" for making that choice. Not having read something on this list definitely does not qualify one for being called "ill-read". (Incidentally I have read both of Jared Diamond's books on this list, Bryson's Short History, David Eggers, Ayn Rand, Lynn Truss, Robert Pirsig and for all my current preference for no-fiction-please, Thackeray, Rushdie, Dickens, Roy and Tolkien).

If I make a list of the books *I* read and ask people to do this exercise, it would be even funnier to see how few people have read anything on my book-shelves. I may be a snob but I am not about to call such people ill-read.

The best question I was recently asked: Who is HL Mencken?

I rest my case.

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: surely you'll agree that all tags are arbitrary! As for this particular one, I was intrigued by the assertion that this list epitomises the shelf of a person who doesn't read but who wants to appear literate! In that case, readers' avenue cred. is hardly to be expected, no?

From this list, I would surmise the creator was a woman (for the preponderance of Austen) who overheard the titles of the (in)famous (Satanic Verses, White Teeth, Life of Pi), and was superficially interested in some non-fiction, but only best-sellers (Collapse, Freakonomics, Short History...). The presence of The Prince is an outlier, and Faulkner, Dickens, etc., points to some sort of liberal arts background in college - required reading and all that. What do you say?

I must say I haven't met anyone who buys books just to pretend to read 'em. Evidently, there's a such a population going by books such as this one.

Have you noticed how, in the west, especially, women tend to read more fiction than non-fiction? Both in the US and here I've met women who've bemoaned the fact that men seem to prefer non-fiction, and the fiction preferences were towards plot and action rather than emotion, showing it as yet another example why the sexes can't understand each other. E.g. here, and here. What do you think?

Veena said...

But it's a slow day and raining, so why not?

And this is different from any other day because?

Btw, not sure if the creator is a woman. The preponderance of Asuten only implies that this person studied English lit in some country with a colonial hangover such as ours.

Also, am not sure about men-women fiction-non-fiction thing. My theory is that men just don't read. They claim to read non-fiction but that usually means magazines. :)

Fëanor said...

Veena: last week? Sunny? Or was that two weeks ago? Oh wait - I was in lovely Aix then... :-)

Yup, I forgot the desi bias towards 18th century writers.

Would you say that men in India tend to read magazines more than books, too?

Veena said...

No, I wasn't serious. Most men I know (Indian or otherwise) tend to read a lot but I haven't seen any bias towards fiction and non-fiction. I mean, obv, everyone goes through these phases when we do only one genre but overall, I am not sure there is a gender bias towards fiction/non. If anything, considering the obscene number of geeks I know, I'd say men read more fiction - fantasy fiction that is.

Shefaly said...

Feanor: To an extent, may be. I know of that book but I am notorious for not letting people enter my study leave alone touch anything and if they dare borrow something, oh hell and plague to them. Extreme I know. But I also know women who are like this about their shoes and bags. I prefer books.

Now since it is still pi**ing down with rain - I should know, I just came back soaked from 6 circuits around the village green and surely my trainer likes me! - why not make your comment into a critique of this list? :-) A post! What a great idea, eh?

I think women do overwhelmingly read fiction and magazines. Not highbrow fiction either going by the sales of random chick-lit about shopping, men, sex and alcohol. WTF?! My mission - a secret one and despite saying this here it can remain so since none of my female friends reads my blog or my blogroll, talking of which see Link Love from yesterday if you will - is to move people into the real world, of non-fiction. The couple of women I have successfully converted are liking it. Now the additional job is to make a to-read list to stick on their fridges when I visit. Easy peasy.

I think men, who read, overwhelmingly read serious stuff. See the caveat 'who read'. And also 'men', not 'overgrown, immature boys'. Single men read differently from married or otherwise hooked-up men. I do think that the former's reading habits would be interesting because they are least likely to be pretending to impress women. ;-)

There may also be differences by nationality. My French male friends were big time into philosophy and poetry (one gave me Baudelaire for Xmas and I do not think I should be flattered).

There is likely a professional divide too but none of my friends is totally unhinged or unidimensional so this one is hardr to hypothesise about.

Now my comment is so long, I think we both should write a post on this topic. :-)

Fëanor said...

I've made a change to the original post, because, really, those 106 books were beginning to piss me off a bit. :-)

Veena: I'm surprised at the preponderance of fantasy fic (unless you include sci-fi in that genre as well). All the heavy readers I knew in IISc were into sci-fi, but quite a few went in for stuff like Booker prize winners. Non-fiction was quite popular, esp. science and travel. And, of course, anything that appealed to their politics, right-wing or not. Sadly, I can't remember what the ultra-hip types at St. Stephen's read. It was too long ago and I wasn't in those circles anyway!

Shefaly: okay, why don't you do that post? :-) As for the differences in what single and hitched up guys read, from my own experience, I can safely say that there are none. What I find is that many men and women who used to read suddenly stop after they get married as other preoccupations take precedence. Some start absorbing their partner's interests, but this is a bit rarer. Of course, all this is based on a small sample of people I know, so statistically, the conclusions may be rejected at any level of significance :-)

Veena said...

Yeah, I should have said sci-fi/ fantasy fiction before. Def meant to include sci-fi in there. And your IISC exp is probably not different from what I have seen. From which I conclude(!) that most men who read do not have a bias towards non-fiction.

Also, to Shefaly's point, should make it clear who is the reading population we are looking at. I am totally excluding the The devil wears prada / davinci code / sports illustrated population here when I say that I don't think there is a bias. Once you get to serious readers, male or female, I think what matters most is quality, not necessarily whether it is manga, magic realism or a six volume work on the decline and fall of an old empire.

As to your questions, while I do not know of anyone who buys books to showcase to the world, it is not improbable. Do you remember that NY Times Style article a few weeks ago on what they were calling the Pushkin problem?


Single men read differently from married or otherwise hooked-up men. I do think that the former's reading habits would be interesting because they are least likely to be pretending to impress women

Shouldn't this be the other way around? The married / hooked-up ones are all set. They don't have to impress women anymore, I'd think. :)

Shefaly said...

@ Veena: I did mean married men. You are right. It should have said 'latter'. Thanks :-)

@ Feanor: The answer to the first question would be 'I do not know any such people, but, oh wait...' (wicked glint in the eyes).. ;-)

Shefaly said...


See this at

Although it is about buying per se (brands, marketing etc), there is an interesting comment about "behavioural residue" that will tickle you.

Speaking of tickling, I am keen to find a book called Hammer And Tickle about jokes in old communist countries. The FT article about it was called Comedy Of Terrors ;-)

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: Thanks for the link. Methinks either Gosling or Miller is an obsessive - who else would alphabetise their bookshelves?!

Shefaly said...

Feanor: Alphabetising by an obsessive and snobbish alpha-reader is still better than some other ways offered by non-readers.

A single friend of mine, an avid reader and keeper of books, had this awful experience. His friend and his wife visited. In a gesture of generosity for the poor single bloke, she rearranged his book shelves - HEIGHT WISE!! The poor guy never recovered from the shock.

Then two years ago, he moved cities. I happened to live in his house on my field research visit to America. His boxes were everywhere. One day he got home and found all his books neatly arranged - by genre. Needless to say, he is now eternally grateful to me.

I do not, for the record, alphabetise my books. I do arrange them by genres by and large, but when there are cross-over books, it is by the dominant theme. Food Politics and What To Eat by Marion Nestle do not belong with Anthony Bourdain but on the PhD shelf where Fat History and other obesity and policy related books are.

Wait, do I already look like an obsessive to you??

Fëanor said...

Veena: yup, the Pushkin thingie indeed: I remember you mentioned it recently too. I thought it was rather funny how twisted up people get with respect to their reading habits and prospective mates. (But you've dealt with this issue already, haven't you, you sly boots, you! Nothing's new under the blogo-sun, it occurs to me.) :-)

Me, I decided to marry Nina as soon as she said that she loved Star Trek The Next Generation...

Shefaly: come on, surely alphabetising is no different than arranging by height or thickness! And I shall say nothing of your obsessiveness, heheh.

Shefaly said...


This article was in the Sunday magazine of the Times on 22 June. It will amuse you I thought:

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: thanks, I'd seen that. Reminded me of a friend who tried to read Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' several times, and each time, he said, just as the family reached California, he'd fall asleep.

Shefaly said...

Feanor: There is also a cinema equivalent of this falling asleep, I think. Something that has characterised my relationship with 'Breakfast with Tiffany's' and a friend's with 'Pulp Fiction'.

One man's meat and all ...

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