Friday, June 12, 2015

Believing in libraries

Broun has never believed in libraries -- he keeps books all over the house, and whenever he finishes with one, he sticks it he sticks it into the handiest bookcase. I offered once to organize the books, and he said, "I know where they all are."
Connie Willis, Lincoln's Dreams

I am drawn to the word libraries in that passage from the Connie Willis novel. It doesn't seem to refer to the public libraries found in virtually every American town of any size. Why wouldn't Broun believe in those? Nor does it seem to refer to those rooms filled with books some people, mostly wealthy people, have in their homes. No, the word appears to refer to an organized collection of books, not the haphazard collection Broun has in the novel. Under one of the definitions of the word library in the dictionary I have before me is the phrase "especially when systematically arranged." Organization turns a collection of books into a library, although this obviously doesn't apply to bookstores or book warehouses, no matter how well their books may be organized.

Jacques Bonnet
As someone begins to accumulate books, there usually comes a time when some kind of organization becomes needed. You may do this to make books easier to find or simply so they will look better on the shelves. I first started arranging my books when at the age of 13 or 14 I joined the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club. Within a matter of months I had already had a nice collection of books, but I wanted to keep the sci-fi books separate from my other books. For one thing, they were all the same size and looked very nice shelved together. All these years later, these same books remain sitting side by side.

Jacques Bonnet devotes a chapter to organizing books in Phantoms of the Bookshelves. He credits Georges Perec with this list of the various ways one might classify books:

alphabetically
by continent or country
by color
by date of acquisition
by date of publication
by size
by genre
by literary period
by language
by frequency of consultation
by binding
by series

Often we may use two or more of those systems at the same time. For example, those old science fiction books of mine, which at one time were shelved in order of acquisition, are now arranged alphabetically by author. Most of my novels are arranged alphabetically, but I also keep mass market paperback novels apart from the novels in hardback or trade paperback editions. Some unusually large works of fiction, such as an annotated collection of Ring Lardner's baseball stories and a copy of The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Michael Hague, are kept on a shelf with mostly nonfiction books of large size. Few of my bookshelves are large enough to hold big books, so I don't want to waste that space on books of ordinary size.

As for most of my nonfiction, I have separate areas for history, natural history, religion, show business, sports and so forth. It helps me to find what I am looking for, at least most of the time.

Organizing my books has become more challenging as I have run out of shelf space and been forced to just pile books on the floor of my attic library. Yet I attempt to keep these piles somewhat organized, unread books in this pile, for example, and those I've read in that one. The novels in stacks are still organized by the names of their authors. There is an M stack and an R stack and so on.

Bonnet has a telling phrase in another chapter of his book: "they are classified somewhere in my mind, as they are in my library." I see this in reference to the Willis character, Broun. He claims to know where all his books are despite their apparent lack of organization. In the same way, I resist my wife's offers to organize my desk, fearful I may not be able to find anything ever again. Perhaps it is really in our minds, not on our shelves, where collections of books turn into libraries.

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