Friday, March 24, 2006

How Do You Organize Your Books?

Do you arrange alphabetically or do you believe in the Random Theory of Book Storage? I confess my library is a total mess – books shoved here and there, piled up on the edge of shelves (where they often crash to the ground with a terrible bang). Chaos, chaos, everywhere,

At least I am alone in my madness. That’s not the case with the Washington Post’s book critic and the editor of the paper’s book section. Jonathan Yardley and Maria Arana are married to one another and they have wildly diverging ways of organizing their books.

“She insists hers is a simple (he says simple-minded) system. It is an approximate equivalent of that great old game 52 Pickup: Throw the cards in the air and, wherever they land, deal with it. She flings her books onto the shelves in her office with, as football coaches like to say, reckless abandon -- Russian next to Spanish, Amy Tan next to Dickens, Kafka next to Germaine Greer -- and somehow they land in a pattern that makes perfect sense to her but to anyone else is an unfathomable mystery.

He has this quaint idea: He'd like to be able to find his books when he wants them. So he has devised this simple (she says simple-minded) system: nonfiction upstairs, fiction downstairs, and, in his office -- which is on the opposite side of the house from hers -- biographies are arranged alphabetically by subject, and the rest is organized by category: history, lit crit, sports, travel. . . . Sensible, don't you think?”

The essay reminds me of the first chapter of Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. It’s titled, “Marrying Libraries,” and it explores what happens when two bookworms with large libraries and strong tastes merge their collections. :

“Our reluctance to conjugate our Melvilles was also fueled by some essential differences in our characters. George is a lumper. I am a splitter. His books commingle democratically, united under the all-inclusive flag of Literature. Some were vertical, some horizontal, and some actually placed behind others. Mine were balkanized by nationality and subject matter.”

(The picture above are the shelves from Black Oak Books in Berkeley. Why can't my bookshelves be as orderly?)

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