A bookshelf tour…

By Caitlin Kelly

We all do it when visiting someone’s home — sneak a peek at their bookshelves to see what they read.

If I ever visit a home without a lot of books, I wonder about its occupants. Even when we’re broke, there’s the library.

So, for a change, I thought I’d show you some of my shelves and a look at my reading tastes; there are more in the living room. These are only one unit in the bedroom:



I have a lot of reference books! The top one is an absolute gem, written by an Australian stylist and full of terrific images, great visual inspiration. Here’s her blog.

The second was a gift from the curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum after I wrote about their exhibit of Manolo Blahnik.

The Log of the Molly B we bought from its illustrator, who was selling his watercolors on a Dublin street.

The Ear Inn is one of the coolest spots in New York City. I wrote about them in this story for The New York Times; the house is the oldest remaining structure in Manhattan — 1817 — and I was lucky enough to go upstairs from the bar/restaurant and see it for myself. It’s on the very western edge of Spring Street, many long blocks past where the cool kid tourists give up.

The Confident Collector and Old Silver speak to my love of antiques. The only way to score a true bargain, especially at country auctions, thrift shops and flea markets (as I have) is to study the genre of item you seek. If you study silver, for example, you know that EPNS stands for electro plated nickel silver, i.e. not sterling. If it’s sterling, it’s hallmarked and there’s an amazing array of symbols to know or memorize, like lions and castles, which are stamped into each piece and which offer information about where and when they were made.




I don’t typically arrange my books by color, as many people now do, but these went nicely together. The marble-covered ones are my journals, which I haven’t read in a long long time; 1984 was a fantastic year (finally hired into my dream job, as a reporter for The Globe & Mail) but some of the others…not so much.

Skyfaring is one of the best books I’ve ever read, about the life of a 747 British Airways pilot. He now writes a weekly column for the Financial Times. His writing is exquisite and his insights really lovely; if you enjoy travel and aviation, I highly recommend it.

And, of course, a book on how to write better. I have a small collection of these which I use when I teach but also to refresh my own skills.

And a Sonos speaker — we love these things!




So this is pretty eclectic!


The letters of Martha Gellhorn are quite something; she was a legendary journalist and war correspondent.

My battered/beloved Narnia books, treasured since childhood.

The Net of Fireflies is a much treasured gift, signed,  from my father on my 12th birthday. The illustrations are gorgeous and it’s a book of haiku.

I keep dreaming of writing a biography but can never seem to find a good subject.

The Nellie McClung book was a gift from her grand-daughter, a good friend of mine; McClung helped Canadian women win the vote and, for a while, was pictured on Canada’s $50 bill.





Hmmm, think I like Paris?!

Mais, oui, mes chér(e)s. I lived there at 25 on a journalism fellowship for eight months and have been back many times since.

I admit I haven’t yet read the next two books, very serious topics.

The HOME book is one of the best I’ve ever read. Instead of lavish and costly celebrity homes, it includes a wide array of real people, each of whom tell great stories about theirs.



Some recent obesssions, like the Weimar Republic.

I stayed in a friend’s borrowed flat in Paris over Christmas 2014-2015 and on her shelf was a fantastic history of the period I quickly consumed. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. Add to that my favorite TV series, Babylon Berlin, set in the same period, and the film Cabaret, it seems like a good rabbit hole to explore further; the top book, horizontally, was the basis for Cabaret.

The two MacFarlane books are nice to dip into, about landscape and how we experience it.

The Moomins are the best! If you’ve never read Tove Jansson, they’re really fun.

The Montreal guidebook is really excellent. We go up a few times a year — about a six-hour drive.

The fat book, What Paintings Say, was a gift for Jose but he wasn’t into it, so I’m dipping in and out — same for the History of the World in 100 Objects, which I first heard about in 2010. Here’s the link.

I never read romance, science-fiction, fantasy or horror. Guilty pleasures include mass-market fiction, occasionally, and detective series like the Inspector Gamache books by fellow Canadian Louise Penny.

Occasionally, memoir. I admit, I’ve found the most popular ones — huge best-sellers like Educated and The Glass Castle — just too damn depressing, regardless of the authors’ later redemption.

I almost never read — and should! — essays, short stories and poetry.

As you can see, I massively prefer non-fiction to fiction.

I also really enjoy social history, like a book on 18th c London I read a few years ago.

What sort of books would I find on your shelves?




32 thoughts on “A bookshelf tour…

  1. What an interesting mix. Like you, I always naturally look at books when I am visiting someone’s home, and I think it reveals a lot. When I moved last summer, And was minimizing, I spent the longest time of all on on my books. It was really an amazing trip down memory lane and a powerful exercise in self- reflection. I donated books where I thought they might be appreciated, to friends, family, little libraries, and shelters. In the end, I was left with a distilled version of books I love, for a variety of reasons.

    1. Thanks! I have 4 boxes in the garage I couldn’t quite bear to part with…Books are such a reflection of our pasts and past passions, and current ones.

      Then all the ones we haven’t even bought or read yet!

      1. You are right, there is so much more to them. Have you ever read ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’

        Nothing deep, but an interesting look at how books affect people, short and very sweetly written. I know you prefer non-fiction but you also love Paris, and may enjoy it, as a quick and pleasant read.

  2. I have a number of fiction novels and collections in the horror genre, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, as well as mystery and sci-fi. I also have a number of non-fiction tomes for research, especially books on Victorian England. In fact, I’m about to start a new story set in that era. I can’t wait to get started on it!

      1. BTW, I think you would totally get a kick out of the books Unmentionables and Ungovernable, both by Therese O’Neil. They cover the crazy and hysterical beliefs Victorians had about the human body and child-rearinh, respectively.

  3. How many books about Paris do I bring back to Paris? (I’m preparing to move there… this, er, fall.) I promised my mover just one large carton of books, some painful triage ahead. Two MUST books from my Paris collection include two with full-page photos of Eugene Atget, who minutely recorded the city and certain Parisians as early as 1898 and into the Twenties. Also in the box, my mother’s copy of Kate Simon’s PARIS Places and Pleasures. My French teacher mom called it “…among the gayest, most readable ‘guides’…” and annotated with her own “footnotes.”
    |Visual beauty is really sustaining.| That one phrase, Caitlin, in your last blog, What do you miss? sums up why I choose Paris, and miss it — even in these days of being asked by a flic for your permit to leave your hood. Thanks to my years of apartment exchanges, rentals and whatnot, I’ve lived in, I think 16 of 20 arrondissements. The Best Neighborhoods often are far from the best, at least for me, to live in. The other day on WNYC radio, the station’s music maven recommended a “moving” Paris piece (sung in English). Transporting, I might add. Atget would have grabbed his bulky camera to record these Parisians in a typical street…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl1mwFA2g5Y See how you like?

    1. Even on the coldest and grayest of January days there, I was very happy. I lived in the 15th in (!) Cite Universitaire at 25, so have also seen a bit more than the usual touristy bits.

      It’s long been a dream of mine to spend more time there…will we sell our NY place? Not sure. It all feels like we will never get out of any of this madness right now.

  4. Jan Jasper

    Thanks for sharing, as always. Unlike you, I did not find “Educated” depressing. If I had put it down in the middle, then yes, I would have found it very depressing. But I find it deeply inspiring that three or four of the siblings in that family ended up getting college degrees – how astounding is that?. I think the author is not the only one among her siblings who got a PhD. That seems miraculous, given her childhood, and is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever red

    1. Books are pretty individual, as we know, when it comes to what we love or hate or are indifferent to.

      I couldn’t stand the fact the narrator stayed in such a nasty environment for so long. I get it. I know why. Just not a book I enjoyed.

  5. Oh, the C.S. Lewis set–that one is just an amazing classic. Loved reading those with my kids. I’m giving Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” a try–NYT said it was one of best books of 2019. But also going old school with Mary Oliver’s “Upstream.” Loved seeing what is on your shelves . . .

    1. Thanks….I also really love the line-drawing illustrations as well.

      I am really bad at reading (enjoying) fiction. I try it and most of the time think…really? Even HUGE best-sellers. I did enjoy A Little Life and The Goldfinch, and know many didn’t.

      Hope you and loved ones are healthy!!

      1. Well, I would never call fiction a waste of time!

        There are novels I have really loved — Cutting for Stone, The Imperfectionists, Lost Illusions (Balzac, 1837 — journalism, same as it ever was!) I just too often find, especially with MUCH praised current fiction, I read it and go…meh. Like Rachel Cusk. NOPE. Like Sally Rooney. NOPE (tried both.)

        I read All the Light We Cannot See recently. It was a beautiful read. I loved A Gentleman in Moscow.

        BUT….especially since my work really demands I know what’s happening in the world, and not in some silly cursory way, reading non-fiction helps me professionally.

        I read Factory Man (hated it) and Hillbilly Elegy (hated it) — both non-fiction.

      2. I loved A Gentleman in Moscow also. But I also found Hillbilly Elegy really interesting. I am thinking that it was probably Because it explained, in part, who elected Trump and what their views were. And as much as I am not a fan of that fact, I was curious as to how it could’ve happened.

  6. You would find an equally battered and loved box set of the Chronicles of Narnia on my shelf too! That really made me smile. I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at age 10 and immediately spent Christmas gift money on buying the set. I’m also mostly a non-fiction reader – lots of biographies on my shelves – but love good literary non-fiction too. And crime fiction, especially the Scandi writers.

    1. I so treasure having that set still.

      I miss so many of my childhood books (many of them from the UK) like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or The Secret Garden.

      I really enjoy biography as well, and letters.

      I’ve read a few of the Scandi crime writers….brrrrr!

  7. Margaret

    Oh how I love looking at people’s bookshelves, so thank you for sharing. I don’t buy many fiction books so my bookshelf makes me look more serious than I really am. If you looked at my borrowing history from the local library you would see what a literary lightweight I really am.
    On the other hand, I loved All the light we cannot see and A gentleman in Moscow is on my list.
    A book that’s been highly recommended to me is The joy of high places by Patti Miller. She’s an Australian writer who teaches memoir writing. You might enjoy it too.

  8. As you know, I love the Moomins too. 🙂 A friend bought me Little My socks and a Snorkmaiden lamp for Christmas. He knows me well!

    Have you read any of Tove Jansson’s other books? I read an article about her writing in The Guardian yesterday, which drew parallels between our current state of enforced ‘small worlds’ and the small world of the Finnish island where the Jansson family spent their summers. Jansson’s The Summer Book describes that island. It’s on my list to read!

    I mostly read non-fiction too. It’s been a while since a fiction book really grabbed me. Work is keeping me busy at the moment, but when things calm down I want to read Confessions of a Comma Queen (written by a former copy editor at the New Yorker) next!

  9. I used to read a lot of fiction. I’ve covered many of the classics (although there are some outliers that I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t, like Anna Karenina) and have also really enjoyed Michael Critchton and Nelson DeMille for pure entertainment. I’ve really moved on to biographies, now though. Everyone from Cleopatra to Elizabeth I to Karen Blixen to Marilyn Monroe (I particularly enjoy reading about women, but not exclusively). I also found The Glass Castle a difficult, depressing read that affected me for a long while afterward ( I know that was part of the point, but my!).

    1. I like your biography choices! I read a HUGE biography of Frida Kahlo years ago by Hayden Herrera. Quite something. Also one of equal length about Elizabeth First.

      Karen Blixen had such an amazing life!

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