Undergraduates’ bookshelves

Conrad Leaton Gray, Hannah Kinsell, Oli Chequers, and Emma Cook are all third-year undergraduate anthropologists studying for their bachelors at Goldsmiths University. Conrad’s points of interest are primarily based on how people engage with technology, more specifically, how technology influences culture. Hannah’s current research involves Anthropological approaches to history, queer studies, and medical (specifically neurological) Anthropology. Oli is very interested in gender theory and queer studies. And Emma is looking to write her dissertation on the Anthropology of gaming.

Interviews were conducted via Skype, and all photographs were kindly provided by the research participants themselves. 

Poppy: Have you changed your bookshelf for this interview?

Conrad: No, my bookshelves are always a mess and I feel it’s better to be candid in this [interview]. My bookshelves are in my bedroom and so they don’t need to be presentable necessarily. As long as they look neat enough they don’t need to be in any particular order for me. They’re for personal use after all, my shelves aren’t a lending library.

Hannah: I haven’t changed my shelves for the interview. I thought it would be more authentic like that. 

Oli: No. I was going to not show certain books because I felt a bit embarrassed opening up about certain aspects of my life, however it could be important valuable research. Thus I chose to keep them.  

Emma: I haven’t changed my shelf for the sake of keeping it as authentic as possible. Changing it wouldn’t be representative of my life and books.

P: So how do you organise your books? Where is the bookshelf?

C: My books are always organised in a very haphazard and loose fashion. They’re generally organised by the order in which I intend to read them, or the order in which I have read them; though this isn’t a hard rule as eventually they overflow [into] piles that fit vaguely into the shape of the few bookshelves I have. I need a better system, and more bookshelves.

H: I normally organise my books by height order. [This] bookshelf is in my room at my London home.

O: I don’t organise my bookshelf. I tried to, but when different sized books come into play with different genres, it’s easy to [just] do what fits and looks nice. The bookshelf is in the only place it can really be in my room.

E: I don’t actually have a full bookshelf as I don’t have room for one, but I use some storage shelves in my wardrobe to keep them. Some are stored in baskets but I have a lot of overflow now! I really need more room for a bookshelf.

P: Where did your books come from and how do they leave?

C: My books are bought from second-hand shops mostly, but it’s rare to find those for Anthropology, so I end up buying books relating to the subject on Amazon. There’s also the Word Bookshop near university which has a reasonably-sized Anthropology section, but the books are all quite expensive. […] They never leave; I have a problem with book hoarding. 

H: Most of the books I have bought [myself] or have been given to me as gifts. Some have come from my family home as they are my favourites. They normally leave when I put them in my backpack to read on the train or if I go back home.

O: I always purchase books second hand and give them away when I’m finished (unless I really value them).

E: My books have primarily come from bookstores, I prefer to buy physical copies from stores as an attempt to preserve bookshops. Some are bought online, gifts, or borrowed from my partner. They rarely leave unless they’re actually borrowed copies. 

P: What are your favourite Anthropology books? What do you like about them?

C: My favourite Anthropology books have to be more pop-Anthro books such as Kate Fox’s Watching the English or Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. A lot of Anthropology can be rather dense and academic but the discipline needn’t be so. I think it’s great when you find an Anthropology book that is informative, witty, and still provides a wealth of information. I suppose these sorts of books lie on the border between Anthropology and travel writing; though with consideration of post-modern approaches to Anthropology I feel this line is increasingly blurred. 

H: My favourite book is Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks. This is because I like the way hooks writes her narrative.

O: I don’t like many Anthropology books if I’m honest as I find them very inaccessible and difficult to read. However, I have a few that I like. I like The Drag King Book by Del LaGrace Volcano and Jack Halberstam because it’s not too lengthy and obnoxious with its writing style. I love the photography aspect of it too. It touched on [some] issues from personal experience which was great; I liked the fact there was no ‘Other’. I enjoyed Emma Tarlo’s Entanglement for similar reasons. 

E: My favourite Anthropology book is Small Places, Large Issues by Thomas Hylland Eriksen. It was the first Anthropology book I read and it just laid out all of the key Anthropological topics such as kinship in a really concise and digestible way. It really got me excited to start studying Anthropology.

P: Interesting. So what Anthropology books have you found the most inspiring?

C: Small Places, Large Issues was a major inspiration in helping me understand what Anthropology is, what it entails, and what purpose it serves in relation to other academic disciplines. The Innocent Anthropologist served a similar purpose. Books such as In Search of Respect, and Watching the English (again) showed me what I personally believe is the best function of Anthropology in a postcolonial and contemporary world. I feel using it [Anthropology] to understand ourselves and communities close to home is far more inspiring for my personal endeavours than studying the ‘exotic’.

H: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. It  changed my perspective on tourism, and of the Caribbean (specifically Jamaica).

O: Same as above. I loved The Drag King Book due to its simplicity and accessibility to read. I loved the personal touch; both the photographer and author were drag kings which was great! 

E: I found Romance on a Global Stage really inspiring. It was such an intriguing ethnography about transnational online dating, which really opened my mind to the possibilities of ethnography and the modes in which it can be conducted. 

P: What of you, then, is reflected in your bookshelf? 

C: A fixation on books I suppose. […] For Anthropology specifically it reflects a fascination with the modern world, the urban, and Anthropology predominantly in the Western world. There’s a fair amount of theory in there, but most of it I use in relation to the world around me instead of focusing on far-flung places. [Also] I have a problem of never finishing books before I start more. 

H: I think a lot of things of me are reflected in my bookshelf. I have many pictures of friends and family, figurines from films and TV shows I like, and my record player – which I love very much.

O: Judging by the [number] of self help books, it probably demonstrates how I think of myself. Travel books show that I have a passion for travelling. I also have an Anthropology for Dummies book and a few food/diet books. My bookshelf almost acts as an answer to improve aspects of my life and personality.

E: I think it reflects my tendency to be a bit disorganised sometimes. It could be way neater but I’m always so busy out and about. 

P: How do you think your bookshelf compares to those of others?

C: I’m always surprised by the minimal size or non-existent nature of bookshelves among people my age, but beyond that I think my bookshelf is more academic than most people. There’s a lot of hard theory, which I believe would be at odds [compared to] the library an average person has in their home. 

H: I haven’t yet seen a bookshelf that is similar to mine, probably because I have a lot [of] extra things on my shelves, not just books. Other people probably have more books than me, as most of mine are back at my family home.

E: I imagine it’s way more chaotic and unprofessional looking. It isn’t even a proper bookcase. I aspire to have an awesome display of books eventually.

P: Great, thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else related to your bookshelf that you would like to share?

C: It’s very hard to find reasonably-priced Anthropology books, I’d have more if I could. Adding to this, there’s a dearth of pop-Anthro stuff which really should exist. [What already] does is fantastic. I truly wish my Anthropology bookshelf could be larger but due to these high costs I find myself borrowing more than owning.   

H: My shelves actually fell down back in December which really stressed me out because I really liked the way I’d arranged them, but thankfully they were put back up fairly quickly. Also, the photograph on the top left of my shelf is of me and my (late) dog. It is one of my favourite photos!

O: Not really, however these questions have made me think a lot about what my bookshelf says about me as a person which was interesting to reflect on.

E: It is primarily dystopian fiction and cult classic, I [find] alternate realties to be endlessly fascinating. 

Interviews by Poppy Foden

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