How Many Books Make a Home?
I love books. They can draw you into their own, faraway world, take your mind off your daily struggles and worries, and transport you to other realms, worlds, and different universes. Ideally, they provide comfort, offer a source of inspiration, and make you want to share them with other people. Of course, there are shitty books that do none of these things. But still, there is something about even the mere presence of books that makes me happy—except for the Bible, but that’s more of a personal issue between me and organized religion. Growing up, I never
went anywhere without taking a book. I remember my grandparents sometimes getting annoyed with me because I would be so immersed in a story that I wouldn’t hear when they were talking to me. I’m not sure when I stopped, but now, I almost never carry a book around. I think barely anyone does anymore—phones made books kind of redundant, especially in terms of easily accessible entertainment. I don’t even remember the last time I brought a book to kill time while I was waiting for my friends or the metro. But despite the fact that I don’t usually read on the go anymore, I still have quite a lot of books flying around in my current apartment. I moved a lot in the past three years and, therefore, definitely learned how to pack up my entire life into a couple of bags or boxes while leaving one home behind for a new one. No matter how little I took with me, however, one thing that I always brought along were books—even if it would just be two thin paperbacks or my worn copy of Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. Of course, I would bring them because I just enjoy reading. But I’ve come to realize that, personally, there is more to books than simply the pleasure of getting lost in a story: The presence of books provides some sense of comfort, some sense of home. Even if I would stay in a place just for five months, by the end of my time there, I had turned my two books into about fifteen, some of which I read and some maybe not. So, what is it about books that make an apartment feel more homey, a place more like you belong there?
Maybe it simply has to do with the fact that having some sort of book collection signifies that you spent enough time in a place to accumulate things. After I sent out a small survey about the connection between books and home, one person indicated exactly this: When you possess books, you “claim a space” and “mark your territory through intellectual and fictional property”. But I don’t think that’s all. Maybe it’s also the fact that books in themselves have no greater purpose than being read. They exist to entertain, to convey knowledge, to offer different perspectives. They’re not necessary. Usually, when you move somewhere for a short period of time, you make sure to only bring the stuff you really need: Clothes, sheets, toiletries, maybe some dishes. Books, on the other hand, are ‘unnecessary’—they’re not essential for survival. Books are more personal: They can turn a simple shelf into a display of your interests and likes, an apartment into a home, or as my friend’s mom passionately declared: “Books are home”.
I realized just how much of our homes are shaped by the presence of books when the pandemic first hit and lockdown confined all of us to our bedrooms. Most of my professors held their online lectures in front of their bookshelves and I have to admit, I also sometimes tried to place some of my favorite books in the blurry background of my Zoom meetings—there were people who even started making a living out of curating book collections, to make others seem more intellectual, well-read, and whatnot. Books make a home not only because they’re comforting, but also because they look nice—they can be a piece of decoration. The Architectural Digest celebrity home tour videos on YouTube are a perfect example. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me give you a little run down: Architectural Digest is an American architecture and interior design magazine which
regularly uploads videos on their YouTube channel—one of their formats is called ‘Open Door’ and tours the million dollar mansions of extremely rich, extremely out-of-touch celebrities who explain that they’re into minimalism while you can see the custom-made designer couch for their pet rabbit in the background. In one of these Open Door videos, Ashley Tisdale shows the viewer around her house. When she stops in front of some bookshelves, she lets us in on a little secret: “These bookshelves, I have to be honest, actually did not have books in them a couple of days ago. I had my husband go to a bookstore and I was like ‘you need to get 400 books’”. To be fair, Ashley Tisdale is one of the more down to earth celebrities—she seems like a normal-ish person. But she makes an interesting, yet probably unintended point: Books are used to create a certain image of yourself for others to see.
But enough celebrity bashing, I think it’s actually kind of cute that Ashley Tisdale made her husband buy 400 books just so their shelves wouldn’t be empty. Because besides making a place look more lived in, books definitely are a big source of comfort—especially if you grew up surrounded by them. Books can bring back memories, even without rereading them. My friend’s mom told me that whenever she starts reading a book, she notes the date and time of her current location in the front—a little pencil mark that has the power to take her right back to the time in her life when she immersed herself in the story. I love the idea of books “representing a certain stage of your development” as one respondent to the survey put it. Some other people replied that “books are much more than just their form and content – they are an integral part of people’s internalized beliefs, aspirations, and values. They make you feel more ‘centered’, ‘back-to-the-roots’, and are a material manifestation of home” because they “fill your place with stories that you are familiar with”.
This definitely holds true for my life. Everyone in my family reads—especially my older brother. Books, therefore, make me feel connected to where I come from and remind me of the days and weekends I would spend at the public library around the corner, reading everything that I could get my hands on. I think this is partly why I have come to associate Amsterdam with a feeling of coziness: From the open give-one, take-one libraries all around town, to the flea markets, second-hand bookstores, and aesthetic coffee table books in the city’s cafés and restaurants—books are everywhere. One of my favorite things about living here is cycling along the grachten and peeking into the huge windows of the apartments that line the streets of Amsterdam’s center. Whenever I spot a house filled with shelves and shelves of colorful books, I stop and briefly imagine a life in which I’m the one sitting by this huge window with a cup of coffee in one hand, and a book in the other. And while it’s nice to dream every now and then, it’s comforting to know that I don’t actually need a fancy apartment to feel at home somewhere—a good book is enough.