What sex is your bookshelf: Week in Books column

Mine isn't male or female, it's just a mess, says Arifa Akbar

Arifa Akbar@arifa_akbar
Thursday 18 February 2016 16:32
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Common objections to books were on grounds of religion or sexuality
Common objections to books were on grounds of religion or sexuality

This is my bookshelf (pictured). Can you determine its sex? Try and ignore the baubles around the books; just regard the titles themselves (at a squint, if you can). This is what a literary panel is set to debate in a fortnight’s time. Sarah Churchwell, Lionel Shriver and

Anthony Quinn among others will attempt to find a reasonable answer to the question: “What Sex is Your Bookshelf?”

It is a complicated – almost unanswerable –question once you begin to consider it, although the fact that it is taking place on International Women’s Day has a degree of reductivism, as if this question can only be considered on this day (rather like romance on Valentine’s Day). The categories it presumes also seem limiting – an either/or – as if the concept of gender can be definitively pinned down when there is enough literature out there to argue for its fluid, even unknowable, nature. What if my bookshelf is female and also male? And what do we mean by male and female books, anyway? Those written by women with female protagonists, or a style and substance beyond this which male writers have access to, or can assume?

Let’s make an example of my book choices for a moment. There is a bottom shelf of university set texts and canonical classics; so far, so universal. A middle shelf of set texts from a masters in French feminism, which is getting into strident female territory. In fact, it is not unrelated to the bookshelf question: if the likes of Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous felt that Descartes’ mind/body separation was a male fantasy, and that women’s liberating biological differences opened up another way of thinking and writing, then “Écriture féminine” surely extends to the way we read as women too. And that we read in an essentially different way from men.

If on the other hand, you are with the likes of Julia Kristeva, and your regard gender as a postmodern illusion, then your bookshelf might well be conventionally female even if you are a man, and vice-versa. Writers such as Quinn, with his focus on strong female characters, and the women’s movement in the case of his latest novel, Freya, might fall into this latter category.

Then there is the top shelf, stacked with translations of the Koran, in English, Arabic, Urdu, and art catalogues that are too big to be put anywhere else. Where does that leave the gender of my shelf? I am not entirely sure I know, or care. A display of books is definitely a piece of interior decor – we are announcing our tastes to our guests and to ourselves, even if some of that is based on human frailty (how many surveys tell us that we like to display our unread classics?). But they are about more than superficial peacocking too. My bookshelf is a repository of my past; all the fads and changes. All the growing up that I’ve done though them.

My shelves might be classed as female because there are a lot of books by women on them, and my obsession with the Brontës – how female! – means that there is more than one version of their complete novels, but doesn’t the fact that I love Philip Roth almost as much count against their femaleness?

The sex of a bookshelf might not just be about the titles anyway, but about their display. My shelves are fastidiously tidy and utterly disordered. So all the books are stacked neatly, but there is no alphabetical order, no colour coding, no thematic order. No order at all, in fact. One of my all-time favourite stories, I’m convinced, is Anton Chekhov’s eponymous one from The Kiss and Other Stories, which I read 20 years ago and have often wanted to re-read but haven’t been able to because I can’t find my copy of it. I’m relying on stumbling across it when I’m looking for an A-Z or a gardening book at the age of 70. There will never come a time when I devote a day to alphabetising. What does this make me? Male? Female? Or just chaotic?

Why explicit Erica is unlikely to shock listeners now

Radio 4’s choice of book to be read on the airwaves has made colourful headlines. Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying will offer its zipless pleasures to listeners as part of Women’s Hour next week, in the 10.45am and 7.45pm slots.

It is admirable, in its own way, that the explicit bits have not been abridged from Annie Caulfield’s dramatisation of it. But I can’t imagine a book from 1973 will ruffle feathers, beyond those accidental listeners who thought they were tuning in for The Archers.

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