Notes on bookshelf

For the past few years, I have been somewhat mobile, residentially speaking, and so have, at a number of points, purged my books, bought books, re-bought books I used to own, refrained from buying more books in case I would move soon, moved books via carry-on baggage, and kept what few books I own in little stacks on the floor of my room.

A few months ago I bought a bookshelf. It was a chance for a fresh start in terms of deciding how to arrange my books on a shelf. And for the first time ever, I decided to do that which is unthinkable for "serious" readers, and almost certainly heresy for someone in possession of an MFA: I decided to organize my books by color. Most importantly it's pretty, but it also confers certain benefits, which a younger me would not have recognized as benefits. A younger me would have insisted (and did insist) on using a system that's deterministic, meaning based on rules which, if followed correctly, would always result in the same arrangement of books. This also means a book would be easy to instantly find, because its correct position would be predictable.

The me of today likes that the color system is subjective. It's not always obvious whether a given book should go to the left of another one, or vice versa. The order of the colors isn't fixed either, and is based on how the books flow as I organize them. Sometimes a spine is equally two different colors, and I just pick one to go with. I might take out a book for a few weeks or months, and by the time I put it back, I might forget the exact position it held previously, and put it in a different spot that seems to make sense. If i forget what color a book is, I might have to look over all my books to find it. I no longer have a problem with any of the above. The me of today prefers to let the chaos in.

What would have irked the younger me the most, more than non-determinism, is that this system privileges the book's physicality, the body of the book, over its substance. I still agree that this is true; it's just that (I'm surprised to find) this no longer upsets me. I'm not sure why it no longer upsets me, or I'm not sure how to articulate why, but it's something I continue to think about.

A friend of mine, whose household also organizes books by color, describes it as being "more democratic," because even his 4-year-old daughter can participate in organizing the books—which is a take on democracy that I find refreshing.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of organizing my books by the race of the author, not only to troll everyone who might look through my shelf trying to figure out the logic, but because it reflects a certain truth that I feel in my reading life. But that idea was put abruptly to rest by one tiny fact of physical reality.

My bookshelf is divided into two rows: the top shelf contains a space that is 8.125 inches tall, and the bottom shelf is several inches taller than that. It turns out that American books are most often 8, or 8.25, or 8.5 inches tall, which means that, of a set of books that are all nearly the same height as each other, some of them will fit on my top shelf, and some won't. So few of the books I own will fit in the top shelf that the ones that do fit need to live there. So, thanks to the brutal and arbitrary realities of these physical objects, the root node of my library's taxonomy tree must necessarily be book height, specifically whether a book happens to be taller or shorter than 8.125 inches.

I could be annoyed with my shelf for not conforming to American book size standards, but I feel I would be equally justified in being annoyed with American book size standards for not conforming to my shelf. I bought this particular bookshelf because it's beautiful. The people who designed it, I have to assume, felt that its exact size and shape, and the size of its shelves, was some winning combination of beautiful and efficient to produce, publishing standards be damned. I mean, most likely they neither thought about it nor cared. If they had cared to make the top shelf accommodate the standard American book, I would have appreciated that; but the fact that they apparently didn't care, I appreciate in a different way.

That my library is first and foremost split by book height, and at such an arbitrary cutoff value, for me breaks any ambition I might have had to organize my books by something more "meaningful" than the book's physical attributes, makes it almost easy to let go of such worries, and simply do the rest of the organizing by color.

It kills me to think that I won't have the chance to hear the stories of every single person in the world about how their books ended up in the arrangement they are in, down to the individual book, especially the exceptions to the rules. That this one lives in this spot because it's easier to reach for; that another is lying on its side because of the shelf height, and these others ended up sitting on top of it because that's where a friend last put them.

Near the end of a long and leisurely dinner at M's house one night last spring, I was starting to wonder if it was time to start taking our leave, when D said he had something to show us, and got up from the table and went into the next room. He came back with an old box set of books by one of his favorite authors (I'm sorry to say I don't remember which author it was)—a box set that he had presumably owned for a long time, decades maybe—and started pulling out the books and telling us about each one.

At some point, it suddenly occurred to him that he couldn't remember what order the books in the set had been in just before he had pulled them out—which was maybe also the original order of the set. We laughed about it together then, but at his end of the table he went on privately trying to recall the order the books had been in: arranging them in a certain order, trying to see if that felt especially familiar, then trying another. A small sadness had come to him, I felt it too: it was the sadness of losing a previous state of your world that you hadn't realized was meaningful enough to need a snapshot, until it was too late. It was the sadness of forgetting. For me, there was also the gravity of knowing that the thing he had lost, he had lost in the process of sharing with me his love for it. The loss was now wrapped up inside the gift.

I suppose the current state of one's shelves or stacks, with all its exceptions and the stories of how the exceptions came to be, is the sum of all the little displacements and forgettings that life and love and friendship have wrought on the canonical order, such as it was. To be able to wake up in the morning and greet your books as they are, without shame or discomfort... you strive for that all your life.