Leah Burgin: What our books say about us

By Leah Burgin, Daily Fine Arts Columnist
Published March 27, 2011

Surrounded by a pile of jeans, cereal boxes, DVDs, posters and notebooks waiting to find a temporary cardboard home, I struggled to tape shut a huge, almost-bursting packing box. My dad, who was loading up the car that would take me to my first day of college, almost broke his back lifting it. Demanding to know what was inside, he pulled apart the lovingly applied duct tape to reveal ... books. And lots of them.

Refusing to cart this miniature library four hours north, my parents demanded I leave some of my precious books behind. It was a cruel and terrible process — I forced myself to abandon the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, the “Harry Potter” novels, most of Orson Scott Card’s bibliography and countless other books from my childhood. The thought of facing college without the familiarity and comfort of my books was intimidating. What if I needed to quote Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” or Alexander Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo” for a paper? What if my siblings, in my absence, borrowed Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera” and wiped their snotty noses all over its pages? What if my books missed me?

Despite these concerns, my parents refused to budge. So I grudgingly re-packed the survivors of the purge and went on to pack the slightly more necessary items, like toothpaste and pens. Little did I know that the books I chose to grace my dorm’s bookshelves were to impact how people perceived me throughout freshmen year.

It began with my roommate. She judged me, not for the contents of my bookcase, but for the sheer number I brought. It’s something she still teases me about. She also was amused by my confession that I only added Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie” to the pile to stimulate conversation with her if we had nothing else to talk about — she had told me she liked “memoir books” and it was the only one I owned. Luckily, we didn’t have to resort to that plan B.

But the judgment didn’t end there. Whenever new acquaintances would walk into our dorm room, they would be distracted by my books. People would want to talk about them, gush about which ones they also loved or inquire who in the world was Tom Robbins and why did I own a dozen of his books? (Hint: Robbins in the genius behind “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” which was adapted for the silver screen by Gus Van Sant.) It came to the point that friends of friends of friends would walk in, share an in-depth conversation with me about literature and then leave, never to be seen again.

Friends began associating me with my books. If someone wanted a recommendation or to borrow a book, he or she would come to me. I had the college classics like “1984” and “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I had books no one had ever heard of, like the entire bibliography of Tom Robbins. I had childhood favorites like Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. My books were quirky; I was quirky. My identity was slowly being tied to what was on my bookshelf.

Only in retrospect do I realize how common this is. Perhaps second only to an iTunes library, a populated bookshelf defines our perception of its owner. If someone displayed every Judi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks book ever published, we would think of that person differently than someone whose library boasted Shakespeare and Nietzsche. Now, obviously, an individual is much more than the contents of his or her bookshelf, iPod, DVD collection or closet. No one can be solely defined by material things — there are unique nuances and idiosyncrasies that cannot be conveyed through commodities, no matter how convenient it may seem to proscribe people as the sum of their material preferences.

But what if we could be? What if we could be solely defined by the pages upon our bookshelves? If you had to pick five books that defined your personality in total, could you do it? Which ones would they be?

With a preliminary perusal of my current dorm room bookshelf (which is now hidden under my bed so no one can judge me), I’ve chosen the five I think can pretty much sum up my personality. And they are — drum roll please! — Orson Scott Card’s “Enders Game,” William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride,” Jean-Dominique’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s “Inherit the Wind” and Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman.”

So, OK, the last two are technically plays. But still, these are the five books I could never leave behind. They belong on my bookshelf. They each have a special, irreplaceable place in my heart and, because of this connection, I believe they define me the most. If you want to get to know me better (and who wouldn’t?) read them. Absorb them. And then let me know what you think. Please remember, though, to take the experiment out of context and realize that, outside of a hypothetical realm, there is much more to me than the characters, thoughts, jokes, stories and emotions that exist within those pages.

And please don’t read “The Pillowman” first. You will want to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.