‘Bookshelf warning signs’ post spurs debate, dunking on Kerouac


It all began, as so many things do, with a simple tweet:

What followed will, to the weary eye, perhaps not be entirely unexpected. Some were offended. Some missed the point. Some protested too much. And some were funny. As the August heat bore down ever more oppressively, people of the internet came together to react, and overreact, to a tweet about literary red flags. And like waves on a lonely shore, the reactions will just keep coming.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Jess McHugh’s list is obviously intended as comedy and is made up of broad generalizations; the list is not titled ‘Bad Authors,’ nor ‘Books Which If Owned Automatically Mean The Person Who Owns Them Is An Asshole.’ Maybe they had to read Ayn Rand for a class! You don’t know! Be open-minded! But in this, the age of respectability bookshelves and performative Zoom decorating, it’s a fine time to consider what books on a person’s bookshelf-a bookshelf they really, really want you to see-might give one cause to perhaps begin ever-so-slightly to worry.

That performative piece is important. Does the person really like Hemingway, or do they just want to impress upon you their own profundity?

Now, some true warning signs:

Of course, there’s more than one way of looking at a copy of Infinite Jest:

And the list should, in addition to being taken with a grain of salt, be considered incomplete:

But it’s not as if one can’t have questions:

What is wrong with Goethe?

But, like some of the best and/or most frustrating literature one might really want to make sure everyone knows they’ve read, the most interesting question isn’t “What books are warning signs?” It’s “What do my bookshelf choices say about me?” For example, if a person, say, has three separate complete works of Shakespeare plus Folger copies of several individual plays, what does that say about a person? What about a series of short novellas that are comprised almost entirely of dirty jokes about pirates? Does one really need to keep that copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, if one has long since admitted to herself that she is definitely never going to finish it?

Perhaps the real bookshelf warning signs were those we keep tucked away inside ourselves.

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