From this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Leah Price on "The Subconscious Shelf":
The French gastronome Brillat-Savarin began “The Physiology of Taste” (1825) by declaring, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” You are also what you read — or, perhaps, what you own. In my college dorm, a volume of Sartre was casually spread-eagled across the futon when I expected callers. We display spines that we’ll never crack; we hide the books that we thumb to death. Emily Post disapproved: her 1930 home decorating manual compared “filling your rooms with books you know you will never open” to “wearing a mask and a wig.”
To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self. The artist Buzz Spector’s 1994 installation “Unpacking My Library” consisted of all the books in his library, arranged “in order of the height of spine, from tallest to shortest, on a single shelf in a room large enough to hold them.” Shortly after the 2008 election, a bookstore in New York set out 50-odd books to which Barack Obama had alluded in memoirs, speeches and interviews. The resulting collection revealed more about the president-elect than did any number of other displays of books by and about him.
From the November 7 New Yorker, James Wood's "Shelf Life" column on his father-in-law's library:
And in this way, I began to think, our libraries perhaps say nothing very particular about us at all. Each brick in the wall of a library is a borrowed brick: several thousand people, perhaps several hundred thousand, own books by F.E. Peters. If I were led into Edmund Wilson’s library in Talcotville, would I know that it was Edmund Wilson’s library, and not Alfred Kazin’s or F.W. Dupee’s? We tend to venerate libraries once we know whose they are, like admiring a famous philosopher’s eyes or a ballet dancer’s foot. Pushkin had about a thousand non-Russian books in his library, and the editor of “Pushkin on Literature” helpfully lists all those foreign books, from Balzac and Stendahl to Shakespeare and Voltaire. She confidently announces that “much can be learnt of a man from his choice of books,” and then unwittingly contradicts herself by adding that Pushkin, like many other Russians of his class, read mostly in French: “The ancient classics, the Bible, Dante, Machiavelli, Luther, Shakespeare, Leibnitz, Byron … all are predominantly in French.” This sounds like the library of an extremely well-read Russian gentleman, circa 1830 – the kind of reading that Pushkin gave to this standard-issue Russian romantic, Eugene Onegin. But what is especially Pushkinian about the library? What does it tell us about his mind?