When I am invited to someone’s house, given the opportunity, I take time to look over their bookshelves. You can tell a lot about someone by what is on their shelves: what they studied in college, what their interests are, how much they value reading and books. Bookshelves are a window into the mind of their owners. (If you don’t have a bookshelf, I don’t think we can be friends.)
Sometimes I just sit and stare at my own bookshelves. I don’t have an expansive collection, but looking at what I have is a way of reviewing my life up to this point. I can see periods and episodes marked by the presence of certain books. More than the product of their authors, they are monuments to events and epochs of my life.
My nature shelf is the most obvious chronicle. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America stands as the bedrock of this shelf. Other volumes are testimonies to travels: Birds of the West Indies, A Field Guide to the Birds of Korea, Birds of the Middle East, The Complete Field Guide to Ireland’s Birds, and Birds of Europe. Books on shorebirds and dragonflies highlight particular and related interests.
Some books on my shelves still have spine labels proclaiming the Library of Congress call numbers. Except for a few volumes gained from libraries culling their collections, these are mostly artifacts of a multiyear period when I sought to keep my collection organized by call number. Two factors contributed to the demise of this practice. I no longer have access to a typewriter on which to create the labels and my wife prefers different organizational groupings for our books.
Other shelves hold groupings of a particular author’s work. My “periods” with several different authors—Philip Yancey, G.K. Chesterton, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Gary Thomas, Max Lucado, Michael Casey, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Dallas Willard—are indicated on my shelves. I am who I am today because of their influences.
Some books—Labyrinth of Reason, Paradoxes, and some other philosophical works—point back to undergraduate studies. Memories of time spent in Bracken Library and North Quad at Ball State University linger about this corner. These quickly lead to other memories, not of lonely college life, but of our first years of married life.
Other books are remnants of seminary. Commentaries on Philippians and Revelation are artifacts of classes taken on those epistles. My Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition, sit as memorials to languages learned and lost. Other works since acquired are testament to a desire to regain that knowledge—Basics of Biblical Hebrew and Basics of Biblical Greek. A collection of Anglican history and theology works are a milepost indicating a significant turn from the course set by my Anabaptist seminary.
On my shelves is one survivor from my 15 months at Syracuse University: Principles of Fraud Examination. None of the marketing, accounting, economics, or public policies texts made the cut. With my non-business bent, my time in Syracuse was what may be euphemistically termed a “broadening experience,” but I gained an MBA in spite of myself.
There are two shelves that testify to our homeschooling legacy. In a few weeks we will only have one left “in school,” so our collection has shrunk considerably, but our youngest could look on those shelves and see what lies ahead of him for the next three years. At this point, though, I don’t think he cares.
One shelf holds some European travel guides and maps, aids in our travels this past year. I suspect they will mostly be given away soon, though I will hold onto a few maps as mementos. Someday I might have my own study where I can display my maps on the walls. There is no finer way to decorate a wall in my opinion.
Whether or not your ever visit my home, maybe this narrated tour of my bookshelves will help you see me a bit clearer. If you do come, be sure to check them out for yourself.