December 2nd

On Reshelving Your Library


Gaze upon the storied shelves… well, a less grand beginning perhaps. But those of us who own more than a few books  that is, paper thingies with covers — and especially writers and other folk who have used them to make a living, are sometimes intemperate about their libraries. We come to think of some books as close friends, some are acquaintances we see often and stop off for a drink with on the way home, or ask over to dinner, some are simply people we know, either personally or by reputation, and some we remember with degrees of distaste, sadness, regret, anger.

            Those of our books which are our oldest friends are likely to be those we grew up with. I was curious once about the books I thought formative, and developed a crude arithmetic for measuring their voices, a mixture of short and long phrases, the frequency and duration of pauses, and a quality I called urgency, which was the tendency of short things to become shorter, long things longer, rapid things quicker, common things commoner. Transformed into Cartesian co-ordinates I was able to locate them on a map, and when I had done so I found that my favorite books were clustered more or less densely around a few that were the epitome of some aspect of voice: Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Bleak House, The Ambassadors, and others. And when I considered the times in my life when I first read these books I discovered that they fell into just three periods in my teens and twenties. After that, no book I read could be called formative, and any book without a formative voice would be read.

            These old friends, some of whom I may have met only the day before, would be shelved in the best locations, on shelves neither too high or too low, gathered in villages. I suppose that if one had enough books these villages might become towns or cities and it would happen that kings and dictators would be created to keep the peace, oppress their neighbors, demand tribute, and so forth. There are many books which I am certain I own but can’t find, and suspect that the local warlord has dragged them off in the middle of the night to a sordid death.

            One of the useful purposes that a library classification system serves is to keep great cities of books sufficiently dispersed to prevent the emergence of empires. Satraps will come and go as best-sellers wax and wane in their poor months of power, intellectual charlatans are exposed, nascent dynasties fail.

            A periodic reshelving of one’s own books serves these purposes on a smaller scale, preventing ossification of the reader’s mind.

            Every few years I reshelve all my books. This is usually for the ordinary purpose of making shelf space. But just as I can’t watch only a few minutes of Alec Guinness as George Smiley, or read only a page or two of Tolkien or Proust, if I start for whatever reason to reshelve some of my books then they will all be shifted. Books shelved behind will be brought forward, mass-market paperbacks will be united with hardcover relatives, new tribes will be discovered or disbanded, I make new friends or disown old ones, betray threadbare commitments. I sit on the floor among them all. We touch, talk, ask about health and grandchildren, reminisce. A few days later they are all back on the shelves, cheerfully talking over the fence with their new neighbors.

            Constraints of space force me to segregate books by size, with a ghetto of trade paperbacks stuffed one row on another into various cabinets or on top of tall furniture. Other painful necessities do violence to order and system. For several months after, some books will go missing like a cat returning to its old haunts. And some books won’t be found again until the next comprehensive overturn.

            I have a friend who sends me postcards from all over the world, which all begin with some variant of “I’m here for a few days with Bargychks, who I knew when I was … ” This fellow never stays in hotels. He bunks with people, some of whom he hasn’t seen in forty years (except to write a postcard from Cvoishan where he is going round the museums with — all of whom are happy to see him. This is the relationship I want with my books, and like all relationships it must be cultivated. With no care — a bit of weeding or watering or pinching back — no lifted hats or friendly encounters on the street — relationships wither and die.

            I doubt if there is such a thing as a community of e-books. They all live alone in their tumbledown shacks and isolated slums. They live, if it may be called that, to satisfy one-night stands and to serve as cocktail party companions.

            When I die what is now my family and friends, my support network, will vanish. They are mine, and when I am no more they belong to no one. They will lose their identity and standing until perhaps adopted from a used bookstore, found new jobs in their trade, or otherwise begun lives afresh. From my grave I will wish them continued life and happiness.

            Given that thought, have you ever considered shelving your books by color? Google the matter and find out how many do. I wonder how a classification decision is made for half blue, or shades of lemon? Or a second edition bound in a different color which ends up two rooms down the hall from the first? Thick and thin seems problematic, too. You’d need a calipers. Or by the letters of the second sentence on page five, as if they were all code books.

            You have a world. Start now to find another one of many.