My husband and I live in a library. We have books on all four floors, in the hallways and along the stairs, in every room of the house. Since my husband and I are both writers, we have plenty of piles, too. Books to read, to sell, to use in the writing of yet more books. Shelf space is at a premium in our house and serious bodily injury awaits the fool who mislays a book. How then to maintain order (and room to walk) in a house bulging with books?
First things first: we each have our own library and they’re off-limits to the other. When I say library, I don’t mean a single purpose room but a shelf or collection of shelves where books accumulate. We also have our own work spaces and that helps keep our books apart and our marriage intact. And, of course, it’s obvious to us which books are his and which are mine.
His library contains history books about pretty much every period or place, biographies of Dutch, American and other politicians, foreign policy journals and socioeconomic analyses. We ascribe to him all the art books, too, as well as any fiction written in a language other than English. We keep the art books stacked so that the cat can sit among them. If there is also an order to his non-fiction books, I can’t see it.
Every now and again, I need to borrow one of his books. Some nugget of history intersects with my fiction. Like this beautiful book, Dempo en Baloeran, about two ocean liners built by the Dutch in the 1930s to transport passengers in style to Asia. I don’t rummage in his library, of course. I ask and he normally obliges.
the want to read library
My husband is not so reticent about plundering my library. Mine are all the English language fiction, the poetry, most of the cookbooks and all the gardening guides. I keep the books I want to read in a separate pile. Some of them wait years to be read. Others could be today’s acquisition. My husband goes book shopping in this pile to find his next book to read in bed.
I don’t mind that he borrows my books. It drives me crazy that he never puts them back in the right spot. You see, I stack my to-read books in piles of 25 and in reverse chronological order by the date of their acquisition. A little compulsive, you say?
I know a guy who organizes his books by color what must be the Pantone paint swatches as his guide. I’m not that bad (I think) but I’m also not so loosey-goosey as Karen Joy Fowler. She organizes her books by propinquity to the author.
Richard Butner and Christopher Rowe are close friends so they are next to each other and Christopher is married to Gwenda Bond, so she is next to him. John Kessel is on Richard Butner’s other side and then Jim Kelly. And so on.
I don’t know that many published writers yet (though I am considering a special Shelf of Honor once I hit a critical mass). Until then, I’ve got to use some other method to tame the madness, that is, if I ever want to find a book again.
But I have to confess: my library isn’t merely a database to be Google searched from time to time. I’m proud of my book collection and I want it displayed like any other work of art. Plus, as Jeanette Winterson says:
when we go to somebody’s house, what’s better than looking at their bookshelves? Nobody’s ever going to say, “Can I see the index to your Kindle?” It’s so depressing and so unsexy.
What would a perusal of my library reveal? For starters, a lack of dusting fervor. Perhaps a preponderance of fiction written by Americans in the 20th century. That’s just a guess, since my books are shelved in alphabetical order. Boring! Georges Perec would not approve when there are so many other options:
- continent or country
- date of acquisition
- date of publication
- major periods of literary history
- priority for future reading
It makes sense to organize travel guides and cookbook by region, just as I keep all my reference works on Asia close to my desk. The gardening books stand by size due to the oddly shaped corner in the bookcase they call home. Our kids, now fully grown and out of the house, have left behind the books of their youth. These I’ve ordered by age category so that I can give them away as needed.
I refuse to organize my books by color but I once used publication dates. This was back in my undergraduate days when I was an English major at UC Irvine. It was quite an eye-opener for me to learn that Gustave Flaubert began writing Madame Bovary the same year Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter.
Back then, writers could be contemporaries but remain utterly separated by language and geography. These days, it’s perfectly possible to live in Lahore and write about events that could take place in London or Lebanon.
the crazy stuff
It’s too late for me to re-order my library along some other guiding principle. There are just too many of them. I don’t have a guy like Fran Lebowitz does who arranges her book shelves for her. I actually wouldn’t mind being that guy so I could argue with her whether a biography about Henry James belongs with the works by Henry James.
But there will always be books that defy categorization like The Art of Travel. Alain de Botton is a philosopher interested in why one travels. Can I respectfully stash such a work among the travel books or do I have to leave it to sink into the morass of my husband’s non-fiction swamp?
When our kids were young, I had a truly anal system for organizing their Lego. The first step was to divide the pieces by shape. If that offered no clarity, then I subdivided by function: animals, plants, wheels, doors and windows. For those items that defied all labeling, I had a crazy things box.
Wouldn’t you know it? Fran Lebowitz has a crazy books shelf. Hmm, that gives me an idea.
For geeking out on even more ways to organize your library, see the inspiration for this blog post written by Emily Temple: "How 11 Writers Organize Their Personal Libraries" at lithub.com.
If you're wondering where you rank in bibliomania, here's a fun cartoon by Grant Snider.