I’ve been thinking lately about organizing our books. Alberto Manguel, in an excerpt from his forthcoming book Packing My Library on the Paris Review blog, writes about the experience of reshelving the books of one’s personal library:

“In the act of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels. Many times, I’ve found that a book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance of order.”

The last time we moved, eight years ago, we had 900 books. The packing and unpacking was undoubtedly a gruelling exercise, but it was so long ago that now I can only think fondly of the experience and wish to do it again. Not the move, of course, but the opportunity to make our books seem new again.

A few of our shelves

A few of our shelves.

Our books have occupied the same space almost since we moved in: a series of self-assembled bookshelves that line all three walls of the open room we call the office. Not counting the sundry volumes scattered about on desks, coffee tables, nightstands. We’ve had significant turnover in the ranks over the years – we gave away or exchanged some 300 books and bought another 600, leaving us now with 1200 books. (I keep a nearly-meticulous catalogue of our book collection.)

That might seem like a lot of books, but Alberto Manguel dealt with 35,000 volumes when moving from a house in France to an apartment in Manhattan. I can’t imagine ever owning that many books. That is, I can, but I shouldn’t.

I do have some book collector in my genes (my mother is on a quest to own the complete Airmont Mass Paperback Classics and Reader’s Digest World’s Best Reading, for reasons I still don’t understand; but I can’t really make fun of her because she took me to the used book stores where my personal library was first begun), but I also have allergies and not a large home and aspirations to minimalism and a devotion to the public library system. The number of books in our house will surely continue to grow, but I hope to keep it with reasonable bounds. (What counts as reasonable is subject, of course, to whim.)

Our bookshelves are in a kind of order, part careful and part random. Nothing is in alphabetical order or sorted by colour. We have books by (and about) our favourite authors shelved together (Austen, Baker, Davis, Dillard, Eliot, Powell, Pym, Pynchon, Markson, Moore, Murakami, Sayers, Strand, Wallace, and the list goes on), but there many exceptions. We have some rough genre categories: poetry, books about writing, English classics, graphic novels, my growing collection of self-help/spiritual/business books. The New York Review of Books books have their own shelf. The various Penguin classics paperback editions stay together. Large hardcovers live in the oversize bottom shelves. Art books and box sets like Proust and Harry Potter and Tolkien and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy live on top of the bookshelves.

Establishing a new order

We’ve reorganized the books in bits and pieces over the years, collapsing and expanding groups, keeping the favourites at eye level and the lesser volumes close to the ground. The books we like the most live on the shelves behind our desk chairs. The ones we like the least live in the far corner, almost inaccessible behind unhung art in dusty frames and an old lamp.

But bits and pieces aren’t enough. What I’m looking for is stacks on the floor, on the dining room table, on the kitchen counters. What I’m looking for is that clarifying excitement of handling each book, one by one, off the shelves into stacks, then off the stacks and onto the shelves.

Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting” (pdf), Manguel writes:

“Unpacking … is essentially an expansive and untidy activity. Freed from their bounds, the books spill onto the floor or pile up in unsteady columns, waiting for the places that will later be assigned to them. In this waiting period, before the new order has been established, they exist in a tangle of synchronicities and remembrances, forming sudden and unexpected alliances or parting from each other incongruously.”

I’m looking for a new world order in our land of books. It would be such a new world, such a sea change, that it would be impossible to choose an organizational principle or style in advance. The occasion would require a complete rethinking of what order even means.

Writing a library into existence

I like the connection Walter Benjamin draws between writers and book collectors:

“Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. At this point many of you will remember with pleasure the large library which Jean Paul’s poor little schoolmaster Wutz gradually acquired by writing, himself, all the works whose titles interested him in book-fair catalogues; after all, he could not afford to buy them. Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”

(If you, like me, have no idea who Schoolmaster Wutz is, he’s a character in a short work of 18th century German literature.)

I’m lucky enough to own the works whose titles interest me and whose contents satisfy me, while also daring to try to write the books that I wish were listed in book-fair catalogues.

Further reading

Alberto Manguel is the author of many books about books, including A Reader on Reading, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading, and The Library at Night. (I have not yet read a single one of them, which seems ridiculous.) More recently he was appointed director of the National Library of Argentina (a role held by Jorge Luis Borges), where his doings have become a subject of contention.