How do you arrange your books?
Kate Holden’s piece in this Saturday’s Age asks the question: Can you fall in love with a man through the contents of his bookshelves? Following a visit to the Alexandre Yersin Museum in Vietnam and perusing the French-Swiss doctor’s stacks, she answers positively, and sets about dissecting her own shelves, and what they might say about her.
I want visitors to think I am smart. Or indeed, to prove that I am smart. Tasteful. Erudite and eclectic. All this manifested in the concrete evidence of the books I’ve read: the range of subjects; the impressive editions, the glorious colourful bindings. I had a moment of enthusiasm a few months ago when I was procrastinating from writing a, well, a newspaper column, and collected all my orange Penguins into a beautiful if ochreous slab of mid-20th century cleverness. It was not unknown, I went on to mutter, that I had deliberately placed certain books in more visible cases — or even on eye-level shelves — in order to best array the quality of my collection.
So, of course, this had me thinking – am I a conscientious shelver like Kate? Are my books arranged deliberately? What does it say about me that I, like Kate, hide my trade-size pop-thrillers in the darkest part of the shelf, while Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine takes pride of place in the living room alongside a large range of similarly-themed works?
The more I pondered, the more I realized that while there’s an element of the show-off in my arrangements, such conceit is really just for me. The smart books are at eye-level in the center of the living room to remind me what I’ve read, and what I’ve learned. Does it make me look smart to visitors? Possibly, but, to be honest, I find most visitors are more into my partner’s DVD collection than my books. He’s the coolest guy in the world because of his Fly special edition and his Star Wars prints; I’m hardly Mrs Awesome because I’ve dog-earned the works of David M. Rorvik.
More from Kate:
There had been times, I confessed sheepishly, when I’d had second thoughts and jumped up from the couch to adjust the display to even more advantageous effect. Some people gather their collections by subject; size of volume; author; Dewey decimal system; haphazardry; or have no books at all. I group mine by affection: most beautiful editions together, then the most beloved novels ...
I can’t say I’ve ever jumped off the couch to better arrange my books for prying eyes, but I get what Kate means. It’s as though we organize out books in such a way that makes the book the star, that makes the titles stand out. I wonder if I’m not subconsciously offering David M. Rorvik a comeback through his placement on my shelves. “Who’s that guy?” you want your visitor to ask. “Well,” you’ll say, “sit back, and let me tell you about the human robot…”
Or then there’s the chance your visitor might say, “Oh! David M. Rorvik – I love that crazy old guy!” and you have a coffee, a sleepover, and a friend for life. It hasn’t happened yet, but I don’t get that many visitors.
I might not be as calculated as Kate in my shelf-arranging, but I admit to desiring a similar amount of crazed control. I can tell when a volume is out of place in a single glance. I can stare at my shelves for hours wondering if this should go in travel lit, or if that should be over in anthropology, or even if I should finally put together a separate shelf for my collection of non-fic Pulitzer Prize winners. Is Sophie’s World correctly placed over there? Should The L-Shaped Room go back over here? Do I really need that Leonard Maltin movie guide from 1994? But, it’s an ever-evolving thing, the bookshelf. Never complete, never perfect.
So, as Kate suggests, it’s bookshelf as symbol of self. Our best airs go in front, no matter where we are, no matter who we interact with. Our dark sides hide in the shadows next to the James Patterson trade paperbacks, while the worldly, wonderful, and weird parts grab the spotlight, next to Rorvik on my shelf and Thucydides on Kate’s.
So, what was hiding in Yersin’s dark corners? Now there’s a question.