Off the shelf: Reading a person by their books

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Dan Haley

There is always a bit of the voyeur when vacationing in a rental cabin. After all, you are living in someone else's house for a week. Eating off their dishes. Shaving in their mirror.

We spent last week in a lovely hideaway in beautiful Brown County, Ind. It is the sort of place where you wash the breakfast dishes and look across the field at the neighbor's horses, where after a couple of days you stop and gaze skyward when you hear an aeroplane drone.

But in every vacation rental there is always the one locked door. Padlocked. Usually a room, or just a closet, right off the kitchen. What is behind that door? The good dishes? The exotic spices? The better coffee filters? Telling snapshots of the family? The quiet but loony aunt?

If secrets are locked away behind that door, how then are you to find the soul of the cabin owner, to assess what possessed them to pick that wallpaper for the bedroom?

Books. Check the bookshelves.

Although when attending a party it is improper and a sure sign of depravity to inventory the host's medicine cabinet, you actually appear to be marginally intellectual if you spend some time scouring her bookshelves. Shelves filled with college textbooks, even anthologies of literature or historical surveys, tell you that you have not stumbled on a lifelong learner. Romance novels, how-to books on how not to be such a damned loser on assorted topics, too many old paperbacks with prices under 95 cents, or any serious collection of joke books will tell you to quaff another beer and then to depart said host's party and life.

It is trickier at a vacation cabin to get that window-to-the-soul insight into the cabin's owner. After all, the average person gathers the books most important to them close by. They don't leave them in the cabin they use themselves just 12 weeks a year. After all, late at night when you need to find just that one perfect quote from Arthur Hailey's "Airport" you want that tome at your fingertips.

Last week upon arrival as I sat at the dining room table eating Fiddlefaddle, my eyes went to the bookshelves across the room. I spied, spine out, "Iacocca." OK, I thought. Aged non-fiction. What else has she got? Of course there were the requisite wildflower picture books and a couple of local history jobs. Political biographies of several progressive female politicos told me something, but then, over at the other end of the shelf was the biography of Barbara Bush. There were several historical novels, a step up from romances, but not at the level of, say, Churchill's history of the war.

Then, off to the far left, almost hidden by a protruding wall, were the tell-tale signs that this was either not a serious reader or that the A-list books were tucked away in a den in Indianapolis: Yes. Several Reader's Digest Condensed Books. How exactly did Reader's Digest condense four full-length novels into the space of a Harlequin Romance? Delete the adjectives? Remove extraneous characters? And the bigger question? Why did they do this? And why did millions of people, including my family, subscribe to this quarterly desecration?

Now we are back at home with nightstands piled with books, some that I've even read. No, I'm not telling you what you'd find there. But, man, can Barbara Cartland write!

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