SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA—A friend who saw some photos of the apartment I recently moved into in this area sent me a message about my bookshelf.
It’s a six-shelf Billy from Ikea, about the plainest design you can imagine to maximize space, and crammed top to bottom with books acquired within the four months I’ve lived here. She asked, “How do you choose what books to buy?”
Every reader has their own criteria, but for those who’d like to try putting their reading in an organized path, going by categories would help them make sure they have what they need at hand.
For myself, these are the categories I take into consideration:
1. Hobbies and crafts: These are the activities that fill some of your leisure time. What are the ones you’d like to learn or develop? Woodworking, interior design, cooking? Ask yourself what you’re eager to learn, and go on from there.
I learn better when I self-study because I can move at my own pace, and I’m pretty good at following directions, so at various times, I’ve bought books and magazines to teach myself patchwork and quilting, cross-stitch, sketching, watercolor painting, surface embroidery, and crochet. It turns out I don’t have an aptitude for the latter so I’m still on the lookout for books that will be useful to me in that regard.
2. Fiction: You might like young adult, or romance, or fantasy, and buy a lot of books in those genres.
But do you sometimes feel like you’re stuck in a rut and want to move on?
Or have you come across references to certain personages, things, words, or events in popular culture that you’d like to get a handle on—say, “Chtulhu,” or “little grey cells,” or “Jeeves?” (The first is a character in the works of horror writer HP Lovecraft, the second from the Hercule Poirot detective stories of Agatha Christie, and the third from the Bertie Wooster novels of PG Wodehouse.)
If you’d like to gain a deeper understanding into such works and why they are often referred to, up to now, then pick up several books by the writers you are interested in and immerse yourself in them. The aim is to pick up the pattern of how they write, or narrative arcs that they are partial to. This is also how to recognize the style of a certain writer and the shape that their stories frequently take.
Another suggestion for getting off the beaten path: pick a popular book from a genre you don’t usually read. Ask a friend who’s into that for a recommendation. It might spark some interesting conversations.
3. Non-fiction: If you’re in school, there might be topics you need to gain mastery in. For instance, Philippine history, or cultural anthropology, or philosophy. Acquire the books you need along those lines. My shelves have books on cultural studies and semiotics because I’ve decided I would like to focus my work around those disciplines. This works the same too if you would like to know more about a particular subject, say, airplanes or unsolved mysteries or World War II.
4. Special projects: Let’s say you want to write your grandfather’s biography or help your aunt with her memoirs. To guide your efforts, read as many memoirs and biographies as you can. This will make it easier for you to select a particular format that will serve as a framework for putting in order the information you gather. From there, you can be creative and innovate, because you have a good idea of what’s out there, what’s been done, what works, and doesn’t work.
I’m going into food writing, so I’ve stocked up on classics by MFK Fisher, Edouard de Pomiane, Elizabeth David, Ruth Reichl, Doreen Fernandez, and others, hoping to learn by osmosis. There’s nothing like getting guidance from the best!
5. Reference materials: Do have dictionaries in English, Filipino, and other languages as you require; and a thesaurus. My references rack also includes books about my academic discipline, so that would be volumes on communication theory, qualitative research, and social sciences.
6. Special interest books: I decided I want to go beyond the elementary Spanish I learned in college, so I bought a ‘Spanish for beginners’ and books in Spanish that I plan to read when I have a larger vocabulary and have a better grasp of grammar—Como Agua Para Chocolate (Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate) and La Sombra del Viento (Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind). I can go on the internet and listen to lessons for free, but I’m a visual learner and learn easier and faster when I read. This might be a good approach for some of you.
7. Sentimental journeys and anything goes: Sometimes I just buy a book for no other reason than I liked something about it. I’ve bought books for their beautiful covers, or they’re a special edition of something I already own, or just having them in my bookshelf brings me comfort knowing they’re there (for me it’s the complete Sherlock Holmes canon). Also under this category go childhood books and favorite classics.
Ultimately, though, there is only one tried and true formula for collecting books—your personal interest and taste. Follow your heart, fill your bookshelf, and have a lovely read.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember