The Battle of the Bookshelves

Okay, it’s not really a battle. But when you look at the two bookshelves in my house – two identical IKEA monstrosities – there’s an obvious difference.

The one on the right is stuffed with autobiographies and memoirs and a myriad of non-fiction… books on economics and the Internet age and business and psychology and politics. Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom cosies up next to Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and a rather ominous book titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

The other is stuffed with fantasy, and a smattering of science fiction: from epic fantasy tomes to paranormal romances, YA dystopias to fairy tale classics. The Harry Potter series takes up nearly a whole shelf (because I bought the German translations too), and the classics of Tolkien and Lewis jostle for space next to reams of contemporary favourites.

So, is this division simply a product of my diligent library-like shelving standards?

While I am a bit obsessively organised, and I do work in a library, the answer is much simpler: the bookshelf on the right is my boyfriend’s, and they’re all his books. For some reason, he almost exclusively buys and reads non-fiction. And I don’t.

The Non-fiction Obsession

While I don’t deny some of the titles on his shelves look mildly intriguing, I never feel any particular compulsion to read them. The ones I do read are the ones he waves under my nose… the ones he says I “really should read”. And even then I’m hard pressed to actually open them and start reading.

And his forays into the realms on my shelf? Almost non-existent. To his credit, I think he’s read Lord of the Rings. And maybe the first Harry Potter book. He hasn’t touched the rest, and while he doesn’t decidedly dislike my genre of choice, he’s clearly not at all tempted by it. In fact, he expresses about the same enthusiasm for HP or LOTR as I did for his What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains book (yes, I read that one. Perhaps it sounded science-fiction-y enough to appeal), which was, suffice to say, nothing beyond a luke-warm appreciation. And yet, the sight of these two shelves constantly intrigues me, because I wonder how one person can be so drawn to reading one thing, and another to reading something so completely different, and so exclusively too.

Personally, I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t like fantasy. I can’t see why anyone would read two of Barack Obama’s biographies out of anything other than a sense of civic duty. But it isn’t duty that makes my boyfriend buy these books. He actually enjoys them, and seeks them out.

The Fantasy Obsession

Don’t get me wrong, I do read in other genres. And I can appreciate a good book in another genre too. I can also dislike a badly written fantasy just as much as, and perhaps even more than, someone who never reads in the genre.

But most of the time, I just can’t get quite the same thrill, quite the same lasting, intangible, special appreciation I get from a good fantasy. The deep stirring feeling, the sense of wonder, the delight brought on by a mind-boggling fantastical concept or an enchanting otherworld… even something as simple as the Game of Thrones theme tune can give me the warm and fuzzies.

A great fantasy will have me thinking about it for days after I finish it. It will make its way to the shelf of all-time great books in my mind, where not just the contents of the book but the very feeling of reading it seems to be etched into my memory. And that’s a shelf to which, no matter how brilliantly written and heart warming and ground-breaking it is, no award-winning memoir or masterpiece of literary fiction or suspenseful crime thriller is ever going to make it.


Of course, there are omnivores out there too – people that seem to randomly devour books of any and every genre and show no particular partiality for one or the other. My mother is one of these, and her bookshelf is suitably schizophrenic. When I ask my mother, ‘but which type do you prefer? Which type do you like reading most?’ she looks at me vacantly, then gives a non-committal, vague answer that encompasses at least four different genres… and then continues to add more to her list as they occur to her.

Still, it seems a lot of people exhibit a preference, and I’m one of them.

Why The Preference?

If I were to take a stab at it, I’d say it comes down to personality, with whatever emphasis you want to give the nature/nurture poles on that. Or maybe it’s what I read as a kid. Or maybe it was the one book that gripped me at that particular moment when my book-tastes were becoming set. Maybe it’s personality, or genetics, or my outlook on life.

Regardless of the reason, I have a definite preference for fantasy.

The nice thing is, however, that even though I can’t fathom why my boyfriend fills his shelf up with all those biographies and non-fiction bestsellers, I’m kind of glad he does. Because if he filled it up with fantasy – if everyone in the world only read fantasy and science fiction – it might be just a little boring, mightn’t it? Perhaps a little unhealthy too… like if everyone in our society wanted to be a marine biologist or an insurance salesman… we’d all have far too much insurance and know more than we needed to about fish.

It reminds me of something John Frow said in his book Genre (which coincidentally is a great examination of what genres actually are):

“what we learn, in ‘doing’ genre (in performing and transforming it), is the values we share or don’t share with others and the means with which to challenge or defend them. Through the use of genres we learn who we are, and encounter the limits of our world.”

Of course, I’ll still always value fantasy more, and I’ll always relate more to other fantasy readers when I’m talking about books. I won’t be able to understand why everyone in the world isn’t in love with the great fantasy book I just read, and I won’t be able to help but secretly scorn books that appear to serve no purpose other than to bore everyone to death. However, I can appreciate and respect that people have different tastes (as a favourite author of mine so eloquently puts it read and let read), and enjoy the diversity that makes the world of readers all the more interesting.

And each time I’m tempted to dismiss a book as the most snore-worthy creation since taxation law… well, I remind myself that someone out there might want to read that book.

Maybe it’ll even be my boyfriend.

3 thoughts on “The Battle of the Bookshelves

  1. Very similar to my household! My husband reads non-fiction almost exclusively, perhaps one fiction book for every 50 non-fiction (though for audiobooks, he prefers fiction). I am the reverse – I do enjoy the NF books that I read, but I probably only read about 5 a year, out of an average of 150 books a year.


  2. Enjoyed reading this and all the other wonderful blog posts. I wonder if there is a bit of gender bias in fantasy fiction versus non fiction reading and maybe my omnivorous book tastes realigns the gender/preference balance just a little? Almost seems like a lack of genre preference suggests an uncertainty about one’s identity – maybe there is some truth in that but I like to think we all have many facets to ourselves that often are unknown even to ourselves.


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