Sep 27

JET alum author Bruce Feiler’s latest NYTimes column

Here’s the latest NYT column by JET alum Bruce Feiler (Tottori-ken, 1989-90), author of Learning to BowThe Council of Dads, and several books on the Middle East including Walking the BibleAbrahamand Where God Was Born.  To read prior columns, please click here. You can also see all of his recent media appearances surrounding his new book, GENERATION FREEDOM:  The Middle East Uprisings and the Remaking of the Modern World,  by visiting

September 23, 2011

Snooping in the Age of E-book


I RECENTLY attended a chaotic, kid-friendly gathering at the home of a friend. On my way to the bathroom to seek some solace, I decided to indulge in one of my favorite antisocial activities: scrutinizing someone else’s bookshelf. For a veteran sleuth, a bookshelf can offer a trove of insights worthy of any Freudian’s couch. Does a person alphabetize the books or clump them? Do they arrange their books by genre, order in which they were purchased, or color? Are these books unopened hardcovers or dog-eared paperbacks?

I was several minutes into my investigation (Bill Clinton’s memoir; “The DaVinci Code”), when I had a heart-sinking realization: My friend hadn’t bought an actual, dead-tree book in years. He’d switched entirely to e-readers. Desperate, I turned to his record collection. There the problem was even greater (Simon & Garfunkel, Hootie & the Blowfish). My friend hadn’t purchased a physical CD since college!

My heart sank. I suddenly felt trapped with an obsolete skill, like being a virtuoso manuscript illuminator in the era of Gutenberg. Even worse, I was facing an alarming predicament. How do I nose around friends’ houses when their bookshelves are freeze-dried in 2007. How do I snoop in the age of e-book?

Snooping is more than just an avocation, I quickly discovered; it’s a burgeoning academic field. Its Edison is Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.” Dr. Gosling explained that far from frivolous (or intrusive), a bit of gumshoe in someone’s cupboard or closet can reveal far more about them than an entire evening’s worth of chitchat.

“Places reflect long series of behavior,” he told me during a recent visit to my home. “If I have a conversation with you, I just get snippets of behavior. Your books, your chairs, your wall hangings represent an accumulation over many years. A space distills repeated acts. That’s why it’s hard to fake.”

Of the five major personality traits, three – openness, conscientiousness and extroversion – are clearly revealed in people’s spaces, he said. (The other two, agreeableness and neuroticism, are more internal.) By looking at just the bookshelf by my front door, for instance, he quickly formed a number of impressions about me and my wife. The fact that our books on this shelf are on a broad range of subjects suggested openness. The fact that they are all written by friends suggests extroversion. The fact that they are broadly alphabetized (but not precisely so) suggests we aspire to conscientiousness but often fall short of our own goals.

This perfect storm of clues is what makes bookshelf sleuthing so appealing – and so difficult to replicate elsewhere in a home. “The kitchen and pantry are pretty good,” said Anne Fadiman, an unabashed bookshelf snooper and the author of “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.” “I learn things about that person, and they are things I’m interested in.” Is that person neat or messy? she mentioned. Is that person more interested in show – expensive, untouched cookware hung from the ceiling – or is every pot and pan nicely dented with a few things burned at the bottom? Are the spices arranged in alphabetical order? Do they have lots of frozen food?

“But they don’t interest me as much as a person’s bookshelf,” she continued, “because the kitchen and pantry are reflection of how the person eats, whereas the bookcase is reflection of how he thinks.”

Others have no problem looking beyond books. “I like art,” said Eric Abrahamson, a professor at the Graduate School of Business of Columbia University and the author of “A Perfect Mess,” a book about the benefits of disorder. “I gravitate very quickly to whatever artwork is hanging on the walls. Do they have stuff that turns your stomach, or a piece from a not-very-well-known artist that’s absolutely beautiful?”

People tend to form impressions instantaneously, Dr. Abrahamson said. “You walk in the door and see a towel on the dinner table, boom that person’s a mess,” he said. “You walk in and see toothpicks, boom that person is orderly.” We then seek out evidence that confirms our initial impressions. In other words, peering in the fridge might not be necessary; you already know what you’d think before you get there.

For his part, Dr. Gosling recommended seeking out three places in a home if the bookshelf was not revealing. First, any space where a person retreats to be alone. “That might be a potting shed, a home office or sewing corner,” he said. Second, bedrooms. He recommended paying particular attention to headboards, pillows and what people keep at their bedside. Finally, photographs. Dr. Gosling was struck, for instance, that my wife and I have no photos at all in our living room, suggesting we use the space for “down-regulating” or retreating from others. In my home office, meanwhile, I have numerous photos, all featuring people, from my children, to my family, to me with friends around the world. Alone in my office, he concluded, I seek contact with others in what he called “social snacking.”

For all the benefits of snooping, the activity does present certain ethical quandaries. Is it O.K. to look in someone’s closet? Their medicine cabinet? Their iPad?

Ms. Fadiman strongly rejects trespassing in private spaces. “I don’t have a lot of interest in snooping in places my host doesn’t want me to snoop,” she said. That includes smart phones, computers and e-reading devices, she said. And if, by chance, she was invited to use a friend’s bathroom and accidentally came across a wholesale supply of Prozac or Viagra? “That would be an unpleasant experience,” she said. “I would feel intensely guilty.”

But such unintended discoveries do occur, of course. Years ago, while bunking with a friend, I opened a drawer next to the bed where I was sleeping and found a pair of handcuffs. What was I supposed to do with this information? “Such findings trigger strong, discomfiting feelings,” said Dr. Abrahamson. “The person collects their toenails? They have a knife with blood on it?” And it’s impossible to forget, he added. “Every time you see this person and they say, ‘Hey, nice to see you. How are the kids?’ you’d be thinking, ‘They’re great, Mrs. Handcuffs.’ ”

Partly because of challenges like these, Dr. Gosling draws a strict line at any place thought to be private. When you breach certain boundaries, he said, it can actually harm the relationship. You think about the person more accurately, but in the process you lose trust. And the real purpose of looking around someone’s house, he said, is to bring you closer to the other person.

“When I first walked into your home,” he said, “I noticed that you had a Japanese kimono on the wall. Even though I didn’t know what it meant to you, it directed me to a conversation with you that was more informative. That’s when I learned you had lived in Japan.”

Snooping, in other words, instead of being an antisocial activity, is actually prosocial. Our spaces are telling others what we’re like even when we’re not. These days, we need such boosts to communication, because as the demise of the bookshelf shows, our true selves are increasingly retreating from public display and disappearing inside our devices. We are becoming, as Ms. Fadiman lamented, more invisible. “Our obsession with privacy is somehow reflected in the fact that our taste is now locked up invisibly inside all of these little boxes.”

But perhaps, she suggested, that’s not so bad after all. “Maybe the fact that my host didn’t have an active bookshelf would send me back to the actual people. I would have to walk back to the cocktail party and ask my friend, ‘Hey, what do you like to read?’ “

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