Shelf Obsession: Katherine Matthews

You’ve been invited to dinner at someone’s home. Your host is busy in the kitchen and you wait in the living room. What do you do to pass the time? Admit it: you snoop around their bookshelves don’t you? We know you love shelf snooping just as much as we do, and now you can check out all sorts of bookshelves via the ABC blog.

Katherine is a regular contributor to this very blog: a  member who turns in her reviews with not a single spelling mistake, grammar error or typo. We were entirely unsurprised to see this attitude reflected in her bookshelves. 😉

Click on the photos to have a proper nosy look at Katherine’s collection, and read on to find out more about why it is so elegant.

We are intrigued by your very House Beautiful, neat and tidy bookshelves. I suspect there are some really overflowing messy ones somewhere in your house because I know you’re an avid reader. Or is this really your entire book collection?

Actually, you may be surprised: these are my only bookshelves! I’m a strict minimalist and anti-consumer (I don’t like to own anything, I hate having “stuff” around)… but I grew up a bibliophile and books remain an indulgence.

I try to always keep it under control though, so I tend to do book-exchanges with friends, or sell/give away books when I’m done… so, you see, the books here are the distilled survivors of many culls.

Anytime I acquire new books, I have a feeling of excitement and guilt like a kid bringing a stray kitten home (“It *needs* me!”), and anytime I have to thin out the collection, I approach it with the practical-but-false stoicism of the mother from AI as she takes her adopted son to the woods (“I will *not* cry, this is for the best”). The only section which routinely gets out of control is the lowest shelf on the far right — it’s my to-read queue 😉

Which books from this collection are candidates for the next cull?

I dare not speak their names. To be a candidate is the same as to be culled — it’s a swift process, like pulling off a bandage.

The shelf on the lower left looks like a ‘to-read-and-read-again’ set of books that have escaped your culls. What makes a book re-readable?

A book becomes re-readable when I finish the last page and still want more. It might be because a book is so densely layered I know I’ll get a deeper understanding from each progressive reading, or there are some characters that are so lovable that I want to spend more time with them (even if it’s to see them make the same mistakes again and again), or some lines in a book which take my breath away and I want to try to re-live the beautiful epiphany. Some books have just taught me an important lesson, and I re-read the book to remind myself.

How do you organize your books?

I group books by authors and theme, mostly in a highly subjective and suspicious manner. For example, Kundera and Dostoevsky always get put onto the same shelf because I love them both with intense affection and their writing tends to be full of deeply flawed characters that are likable for the fully-explored depths of their neuroses. Right now they’re next to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie — but I can’t really explain why. And I think it makes sense that I put William Gibson next to Douglas Adams and Neal Stephenson, but why Chuck Palahniuk goes next to them has more to do with my ideas of dark comedy and fantasy. I’ll also make perverted matches like Murakami next to Bret Easton Ellis because the covers match.

What are the three best books in your bookcase?

It’s hard to describe books as ‘better’ than others — they’re all good for different reasons. I can give you three books on my shelf that I recommend the most frequently to people, when they’re looking at my collection.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

This is an amazing memoir, it brought new meaning to the whole genre for me. It’s well-written and engaging, simultaneously warm and dark, and also the beginning of an amazing career writer.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Nobody does characters like Hornby. His characters are complete, complex, flawed, lovable… they’re friends that you get to know. Plus he writes in such an accessible way, I think he can be appreciated by infrequent readers, second-language readers and enthusiasts alike.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami.

I’ve liked many Murakami books, but this one stands out from the others because it’s such a sharp divergence from his other writing. Not too many writers can write across genres gracefully, but this work bridges his stories of everyday people with fantasy in an impressive and surprising way.

Which book would you save from a fire?

Fahrenheit 451? Ha! But seriously. None of my books are actually collectibles, so I don’t think there are any of them which couldn’t be replaced. Considering the level of detachment it takes to loan books to people knowing how rarely they actually get returned, I’m not really attached to the specific books on my shelves, more to the words inside them. The only thing which would be an annoyance are some of the philosophy books where I’ve underlined text, but even then, if it’s worth remembering, I’m sure I’d underline it again the next time around.

If you could give one author eternal life so that they could write forever and ever, who would it be and why? (You can resurrect a dead author too if you like.)

Eternal life is a terrible cruelty to wish on somebody — especially a favorite author. And what a creative burden! There are so many authors and books in the world, more than I could ever dream of reading in one lifetime. If a writer has given me one book that I love, they’ve already done enough.

Which book from your childhood do you remember best? Do you still have it?

We had a big book of fairy tales; I just remember it was a hard-cover book with a red cloth spine. My parents may still have it in storage somewhere, but it was well-loved and falling apart, so it probably hasn’t survived this long. I think the book that I’ve had the longest in my collection is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I’ve had for nearly 15 years.

I love the photographs you have on display. How did you choose them?

The two large color photos with black background are photos of mine. I chose them specifically because they’re photos which mostly express color and texture and complement the surroundings, instead of being photos of an object which just distracts and separates the environment. The two smaller black and white photos aren’t my work, but I chose them for similar reasons.

On your shelves I see books on writing, cinema, languages… What do you think your collection says about you? Would it be telling the truth?

I think my collection says I’m a person with varied tastes and cultural interests. In general I think that’s true… though my books on language are terribly neglected. Every book on the shelf tends to say something about me though. For example, I got most of the Kundera books from my father, and in my art section is a book my sister wrote and illustrated (Different Like Coco), which always gets a prominent space. Because I’ve gotten rid of so many books over the years, most of the time I feel like my bookshelves are not terribly representative, but on the other hand, I think the collection implies the depth behind it much more than a vast library would.

What was the last book you read?

I just finished The Divided Self by R.D. Laing, a throwback to my university days studying psychology. A terrific read, if you’re interested in an existential dissection of the mind. It will definitely find a comfortable home on my bookshelf.

If you’d like to show off your shelves, e-mail If we use your bookcase, we’ll give you a €10 American Book Center gift voucher to say thank you!