By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 20, 2015
People in the 19th century had the bumps on their heads examined to reveal their personalities. I find examining the books on my bookshelves to be more enlightening. Going through my library, culling books I won’t read, and reorganizing the rest, is revealing my preoccupations with various subjects I’ve had for a lifetime. I’m surprised by the diversity of topics, and their stark limitations. Look at your books to see how your personality is revealed, or when you visit a friend, glance across their volumes.
The majority of my books are science or science fiction. But with each, I can see if I have definite sub-interests. I have many books on physics and astronomy, and very few on biology and geology, and none on chemistry. I have quite a number of books on science history. I have maybe two dozen books just on brain research, and just as many on evolution. I used to have shelves of books on observational astronomy, but I’ve gotten rid of them because I gave away my telescope. I never could see well with my scope, and it was always very inconvenient to drive out to the club’s observation site. So my astronomy interests shifted to books on cosmology and space science. I love books on discovering and researching the cosmic background radiation. I have a few books on early man and anthropology and wished I knew more.
My science fiction reveals a partiality to Robert Heinlein, Samuel R. Delany and Philip K. Dick for nostalgic reasons, a smattering of SF novels from the last 25 years, and quite a number of anthologies and yearly best of collections of short stories ranging from the 1940s to the present. I have about two dozen books on the history of science fiction. I have many volumes on science fiction art. I should admit, that my interest in Heinlein, Delany and Dick is dwindling because my interest in newer writers is growing.
I feel bad about abandoning old friends, but sometimes you just have to move on. And that’s an important revelation too. I can only pursue a very limited number of subjects and authors.
I have fair amount of contemporary literature, as well as classic American and English novels. I have damn few novels written by people other than British and American writers. That’s rather narrow minded, but I do have lots of books by women, and a fair number by African-American authors. Because I know only English, the few French and Russian novels are translations. No Spanish, Italian and German books at the moment, but I have read some in the past. I have also read a few books by people from Africa, but mostly South Africa. And I’ve read a few books from Asia. My literary awareness of South America and Central America is very close to zero.
I have a couple shelves of biographies. I’ve seem to specialized on Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but I have at least on volume on H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, D. H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton, Wyatt Earp, Alan Turing, Neil Young, Steve Jobs, and books about the music groups Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds. Plus many bios and histories of people I can’t recall at the moment.
I’m also into certain historical subjects. I have lots of books on the 19th century for some reason, especially literary and scientific history, but many books on Boston, the Transcendentalists, and the wild west. I have several books on computer history, including one just on the ENIAC machine.
I probably have two or three dozen books on books. Book history, the histories of magazines, the history of the printing press, collecting books, classic books, western canon books, and many books on the best books to read in a lifetime.
I do have a number of books on feminism, a few on black history, and a number of ecology. Since the 1960s I’ve followed these subjects in a peripheral way. I also have some books on world cultural and economic problems. And a number of anthropology and sociology type books. All of these reflect a general interest in social issues and a desire to learn about my fellow humans on lifeboat Earth.
Even though I’m an atheist, I have many books on Christian history and The Bible – but I’m giving them away. I have several of the history of religion, and I’d like to know more about how religion developed in Neolithic times. I’d like to know more in general about how early man got from living in the forest to living in cities, and what they may have thought or believed. And I have many books on philosophy. However, my interest in Christian history is fading at the moment. In comes and goes over the years. But I think I’ve read enough to understand how Jesus was made into a deity to satisfy me for now. I’m still fascinated by the early intellectual development of the Christian church, and the impact Greek philosophy had on it.
I have many books on art history and photography. I’m not sure about keeping these. It’s not that I’m losing interest, but art books are big and heavy, and I seldom get them out to look at. Instead, I like finding copies of famous paintings and photographs and putting them on my desktop background, which rotates a new image every minute. Sometimes I just sit and watch my 27” screen show famous paintings or historical photographs. Often when I get into a particular painter, I’ll search out many of their paintings to collect digitally.
I had about twenty mathematic textbooks because I’ve always dreamed of returning to study math where I left off in college. But I realized that’s not going to happen, so they are in the pile to go. I did keep a handful of math history books, and a couple books on statistics, but I doubt I’ll even get to them either. I think my math days are over.
I have no books from these popular genres: mysteries, thrillers, espionage, romance, porn, historical novels, and contemporary best-sellers. I do have a smattering of young adult novels like the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games trilogy, His Dark Materials trilogy. I have no books on sports, opera, poetry, politics, guns, automobiles, airplanes, gardening, boating, decoration, architecture, flowers, pets, fishing, hunting, travel, jewelry, collecting, clothing, and the list goes on and on. It would be fascinating, but time consuming, to make a list of all subjects I’ve tuned out.
I used to have a great number of books on old movies and film makers, but they’ve mostly been given away over the years. There are probably many subjects I’ve pursued at one time but no longer chase.
This bookish psychoanalysis makes me want to broaden my interests, and specialize more deeply. I think I should read more books about all the countries of the world. I’m currently listening to Age of Ambition about China by Evan Osnos and its riveting. Another thing my self-analysis reveals is how I follow certain ruts, but I’m not systematically learning anything. I feel like I know a lot about the history of science fiction, and I can blather on about a dozen more subjects, but not convincingly. I could teach courses in science fiction, but not anything else.
Last night I watched a writer from Entertainment Weekly talk to Charlie Rose about the Oscars. I was amazed at the precision of his diction and the mastery of his knowledge. He made me envious to be able to talk about more subjects. I think science fiction is the only subject I could talk about with such erudition, but not with the same comfort of public speaking. I’ve read many books about Mark Twain, but I could only discuss his work and life in a stumbling way. Ditto for cosmology and computers, two other subjects I’ve spent years studying. This makes me feel jealous of people who can regale people at parties on numerous subjects so easily.
Since I’ve known a lot of teachers and professors, I’m used to talking to people who show great confidence in their knowledge. Most people just gab about what they know, and what they know is usually sparse and jagged. I always love meeting a person who’s in love with their topic, even if it’s a topic I have no interest in like baseball or fashion, because they inhabit their subject with such a comfort and confidence that their enthusiasm is infectious. Sadly, most people just natter about what they heard on the news late night, or relate a story about a co-worker.
Part of my failure at expressing the interests of my personality is poor memory. I’m not very good at verbalizing my thoughts, often stumbling over the language, but it’s my erratic memory that keeps me from being more coherent.
As I reorganize my bookshelves, putting books together by topic, I realize exactly what my interests are. I’ve often wondered if I could program a robot to have my personality. When I thought about what personality is, I concluded it’s the subjects my soul are attracted to at any given moment. Back in the sixties they had a saying, “You are what you eat.” I believe our personality is “You are what you think.”
What’s weird is my interests really haven’t changed much my whole life. My reading interests have stayed close to the same subjects since I became a bookworm in grade school. They’ve gotten far more sophisticated, but like I said, I follow certain ruts. Which makes me wonder if I started reading and studying new subjects if it would change my personality.
The most painful revelation of this study is how much I’ve forgotten. I’ve read thousands of books, but forget 99.999% of what I read. That’s demoralizing.
This is a superficial flyover of analyzing my personality. If I really wanted to understand myself, I’ll need to meditate on why I chose all these topics as my own. Why did I become a science fiction guy instead of a sports guy? That will take much deeper thought than I have time for now.