bookshelf

The Natural History of the Bookshelf

I decided to organize my books. The origin of this impulse is obscure, but since I’ve been acquiring books for about fifty years, this seemed like a decent interval. I own more than a hundred titles, but probably less than a thousand. It seems crass to actually count them. The books are contained in eight or ten bookshelves scattered through various rooms of the house. A few are from my father, momentoes from his youth, which he passed on to me. One such is Will James’ Smoky The Cowhorse, from 1929. And three Tarzan novels, from 1912-1914. Tipped into one of the novels is a note from the man Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, obviously in response to a childhood note my father wrote. It says, “I have a dog too, and he gives me great pleasure.” Then there is a series of Russian novels, heavily weighted toward Maxim Gorky, from my highschool Bolshevik days. A section on Sacco and Vanzetti abuts publications on the Great Spokane Flood, which are next to the entire Dr. Seuss oeuvre. And so forth.

I started by consolidating novels by the same author, which didn’t take long, but served to open up the larger question: what are my organizing principles? Alphabetical would of course be pedantic and silly for such a small library. Fiction/nonfiction made some sense, but how would I accommodate the Annie Dillards, the Wallace Stegners, the James Agees, who wrote in both genres? Friends jumped in with facetious organizational suggestions. By jacket color. Another, gleaned from an interior design magazine: turn the books around, spine in, so as to achieve a consistent aesthetic against white walls.

Then there was the question of what to put in which bookshelf. Recently I installed a new floor-to-ceiling shelf in the living room, and right away realized that bookshelf positioning plays a major role. The contents of this tall bookshelf now confront me as I enter the living room, whereas the shorter bookshelves, and the ones oriented parallel to my customary line of vision, really do not register. Ask any bookstore person: the books that get seen are the ones that get read. Books at eye level get the attention: books at ankle level are pretty much orphans.

A good quarter of my books are in a large upstairs guest bedroom, which is a boon to literary house guests, but for me they only register on my infrequent trips upstairs.

I have another bookshelf, one of those antique office affairs made of dark oak, with glass-fronted doors guarding the contents of each shelf.  At the bottom of the unit are a whole series of shallow wooden pull-out drawers, apparently for storing important documents. Each drawer has a finger-sized hole in the bottom that must have facilitated document removal. I acquired the bookshelf years ago when the government office I worked in was being closed down. The shelf, a battered relic of the manual typewriter era, had been tagged for “offsite storage.” I knew exactly what that phrase meant, so I removed it covertly, as a retirement gift. This unit now contains my old books, my meaningful books, and my old and meaningful books.  Obviously this shelf, which is next to a very comfortable overstuffed armchair, would be exempt from any house-wide organizational scheme.

Then there was the issue of the bedroom bookshelf, which is the repository for whatever I have brought in with me for bedtime reading, plus a few other volumes that I have consciously placed there. The theory behind the conscious placements runs like, “I’ve been meaning to read this one for months and if I put it here by my bed I might get desperate enough to pick it up.” The bedroom shelf also contains a few hefty books that I will never read cover to cover, but that I enjoy opening randomly, like Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, or A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander.

Then there is the Apocrypha Shelf, containing books I don’t know what to do with. Like an aquarium book, but I sold the aquarium. A flora of a region I’d hoped to visit, but now never will. A self-help book; not likely. All of these are candidates for the Thrift Shop, where they might find a new home and be loved.

Speaking of the Thrift Shop, I have a friend who has the largest personal collection of books I’ve ever seen. A retired antiquarian bookseller, he is getting up in years and has put his collection up for sale. No one wants to buy it. But I often meet him coming out of the Thrift Shop, with books under his arm.

In the end, my organizing effort came down to a bit of dusting, straightening, and very limited organizing. I was simply no match for the fierce independence of these wonderful books.

2 thoughts on “The Natural History of the Bookshelf

  1. Well done on your attempt! Whenever I start trying to organize my books, I end up sitting on the floor, surrounded by volumes, sifting through one after another. In the end I’m forced to put them back in an even more chaotic state than I started. I don’t mind. If you spend enough time sitting on the floor, even the ankle-level books get some love.

  2. Sophia, you’re comments are so reflective of my experience. I, too have amassed a great number of books (packing them around all these years, much to the chagrin of my wife) books central to the essence of my being, representing many of my awakenings. The simple act of attempting to create some sense of order pulls me back in time. Reflecting on certain books and luxuriating in the guilty pleasure of personal reflection. It is the fullness of time that provides us with a contextual understanding and appreciation of those books that helped to shape my personal and intellectual growth. Organize the hell out of them and do it often!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *