Shelve this Idea


Lying in bed, looking through the frame of a doorway, I see a section of the long hallway linking the four rooms of my Edinburgh flat. More precisely, what I see are bookshelves — they line the entire wall, floor to ceiling, curling around openings, turning the corner to crown the door in its far, short wall. They are utterly and completely full. Full enough to warrant another massive book case in the spare room, which is entirely full and bears towers containing hundreds more books across its broad, flat top. Full enough that the hallway also accommodates a small, old, glass-fronted bookcase, its shelves bent with the weight of books. Full enough that I had shelves built around three walls that comprise the dead space, high above the architraves, where my kitchen and bathroom doors create a small alcove. Yes, Edinburgh ceilings are tall.

Obviously I need more shelves or fewer books. If you know me at all you can predict which way that’s going to go. Periodic weed-outs occur and local charity shops benefit, but it’s not enough to keep up with my rapacious need to consume every last word until all of human knowledge and experience has danced across my brain cells, however fleetingly.

Okay, maybe not all. Allow me a little dramatic license.

What does that have to do with anything? More to the point, what’s this got to do with the photo at the top of this post? Well that photo popped up in my Pinterest feed, because like a Lorelei of the Libraries, I’m always looking for new places to store books.

And when I saw it I shrieked, NOOOOOOOO!

It’s not for me to dictate to others (doesn’t stop me, though). Books do furnish a room, after all. But when I see books stored by colour I feel deflated and squirmy.

The OCD corner of my brain — the corner that automatically counts off as it slices vegetables — twitches at the thought of fiction next to non-fiction, and an author’s oeuvre scattered around a library because of publisher’s colour choices. It flinches, imagining the person who says, “That’s a blue book,” rather than, “Read this collection of short stories.”

I had an exchange with a Twitter pal who was surprised that I don’t alphabetise my books. My surprise moved in the other direction, which is itself surprising, because I do, after all, alphabetise my CD collection, though only to a point. (Yes I still buy CDs. At least they’re not 8-track tapes, okay?)

My books are loosely separated into fiction and non-fiction. My arrangements are both capricious and sensible. On one shelf I have novelists who know one another, because I thought they’d like the company. An entire shelf contains books by and about the Mitfords. Poetry has its ghetto, as does short fiction, though every now and then (Lorrie Moore springs to mind) I allow a novel in beside the anthologies. Believe me, there’s a part of me that flinches seeing the fat volume of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories shelved some six feet away from her novels, but I’m learning to live with it.

That small oak bookcase is primarily devoted to fiction, mainly unread, though the bottom shelf’s now home to some completed works, and to the books I used to research my as yet unpublished novel.

I am a big fan of biographies and house them together, somewhat isolated from more general nonfiction. And isolated from memoirs, which are something else entirely. I try to keep the Hollywood books separate from the musician/author books. I cluster by relevance, so there’s an special area devoted to books about the New Yorker.

The higher up the book, the less likely I am to refer to it. Except when I do. The ladder is often yanked out of its cupboard and clanked into position. I have been known to read while still on the ladder, suddenly absorbed, oblivious to location.

Sometimes — oftentimes — I dream about redoing my library. I’d like to segregate my vast collection of “On Deck” books even more than the current arrangement allows. I’d like to rethink the difficulty of storing large hardcover editions alongside small paperbacks (they must stick together, but there might be a better way of doing it). I’d like to dust everything.

No matter what rearrangement I choose in future, though, there’s one I’ll never adopt, and that’s colour coding. Rainbows are for flags and skies but not my bookshelves!

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