January 6, 2009KR BlogUncategorized

Resolved: Shrink My Book Shelves

some books I have read

If you own more than a shelf’s worth of books, you must develop some sort of organizing principle. Unless you claim that you don’t organize your books in any fashion, in which case I quote Bob Dylan after an angry fan called him “Judas” for going electric: “I don’t believe you!” Well, I might not go super-intense on you like Dylan, but I would at least suspect some dissembling on your part.

This Christmas, Santa, via my kind in-laws, sent me a good chunk of the tomes I had asked for. The entrance of one book onto my shelves is usually no great cause for concern. But three or four? Well that’s just madness. (Delightful madness, lest you think I’m ungrateful. I hungrily finished one of the volumes within days.)

Tangent: One great indication of madness is this insane phenomenon of horizontal book stacking. You may not be aware, but most Western legal statutes rightly criminalize this act.

some I haven't gotten around to....

Anyway, to the eye-rolling of many visitors, I organize most of my books in a purely egotistical fashion. Novels, plays, and memoirs that I have read cover-to-cover are alphabetized on one side of my double-sided Ikea bookcase. All else, including poetry, nonfiction, and fiction I haven’t read, is banished to the “unread” section.

I know, I know, touting the books I have read is the bookworm equivalent to wrapping a wad of $1 bills with a double sawbuck. But I started this business when I was friendless and unemployed years ago in Boston and frankly, all I had to look forward to most days was moving a novel from the “unread” section to the “read.” When your day consists of applying to the one new job on Craigslist that you’re barely interested in, moving some William Styron or Anthony Powell to the “read” shelves can mark the week’s superlative achievement.

Years hence, this system has grown historically important to me because I eventually realized that the sequences of spines and colors and trim sizes was imprinting itself on my memory. It would then please and surprise me whenever I perused the particle board and discovered that, say, I was accustomed to seeing Y sidled up to Z, but now I’ve read X who will forever stand in their way. Or that A and B’s distinctive pairing over the years was terminated because I had to sell B for grocery money way back when.

And to see the “read” section gradually stretch beyond a couple of bookcases–! A fitter definition of ecstasy one might hardly imagine.

This year’s gift-giving season has led me to suspect a better measure of a collection: not how greatly a collector hoards and moves books from one pile to the next, but how the collection contracts. Books are meant to move, and not just the reader’s emotions. They are meant to physically move, to find new shelves in the houses and apartments of family and friends old and new; or to land in libraries or schools when owners determine it is time for a personal collection to move to a more institutional setting.

So here is one resolution, since it seems a good time of year for such things: I resolve to move my books a bit, to see the order of my shelves evolve.