Shelf arrangement and finding order in chaos

Browsers Ecstasy

Shelf arrangement and finding order in chaos

I was startled to learn recently that for at least a century books were not placed vertically on shelves, and that the spines faced inward! Since the spine didn’t contain the title or the author, it didn’t matter if you shelved it spine in and fore-edge out. In The Book on the Bookshelf Henry Petroski tells us that in medieval times books were chained to desks in monasteries, and when it became possible a little later to privately own books, they were mostly placed horizontally on desks, windowsills, beds, chairs and all over the floor. And it was only with the proliferation of bibliophiles who often had to step over books to reach their beds, and who were at a loss to contain their books, did bookshelves become a necessity, an invention.

 I’ve spent the last month unpacking books, indulging in arranging and rearranging books on my shelf. So, naturally, I’ve been paying attention to bookshelves. And I have to agree with Petroski that from the most simply designed bookshelf to contemporary bookcases in bookstores (where the shelves are slanted and the bottom shelves flare out so that a browser can look at the titles standing up) bookshelves are a marvel of structure and engineering.

But, alas, the first thing I noticed with my shelves was how they looked more like showcases than bookcases. The shelf had too much depth. The temptation here is to stack two rows of books. Beware. You’ll never see the book in the back row. There’s a sort of Bermuda Triangle of books back there that makes the row invisible. You can never find them when you most need them. The most authentic looking bookcases are all slim, where a book fits snugly. (The sole advantage to deep shelves is you can use the space in front for keeping pencils, bookmarks, reading glasses, and even books you are in the middle of).
The next thing to avoid like the plague is the fatal mistake committed by most of our libraries and educational institutions: Using slotted angle metal shelves instead of wooden bookcases. I am not reconciled to the slotted angle — they should be allowed to house only management and computer books. And perhaps all those writers we feel are overrated.

The other common sight I see on most bookshelves is a row of books either tightly packed or sloppily arranged. Both damage a book’s condition. Packing it too tightly will mean you have to force a book out (we grip the spine and pull hard), damaging the jacket or the spine. If the books are loosely arranged, they will, in time, become warped.
There’s actually a fine tradition of bibliophiles recording this activity of bookshelf- arranging. The classic account is Walter Benjamin’s ‘Unpacking My Library’. Here he says famously that it is not that the books live in him, but that he lives in them. He talks of how absorbing and pleasure-giving unpacking books can be, and that sometimes he would stay up late into the night, trying to decide which books should go where, and never realize how much time has passed.

Terry Belanger, founder of the Rare Book School, once wrote an amusing, erudite little pamphlet called Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books on the various strange to foolish ways book collectors over the centuries have categorized and shelved books. Until the 18th century, since spines of books were not labelled, the owners identified books on their shelves by colour and size. Bindings in morocco came in bright colours and the books were of all shapes and sizes.
Samuel Pepys was obsessed with trying to get books of various sizes — folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo — looking even on the shelf without having to use shelves of different sizes. To accomplish this, Belanger informs us, Pepys built into his bookcases (what we could only describe as) high heels for the smaller books so every book would sit evenly. His wainscot bookcases can still be seen at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where they have been since 1724.

Belanger cites an absurd Victorian book of etiquette that suggests ‘the perfect hostess will see to it that the works of male and female authors be properly segregated on her book shelves. Their proximity, unless they happen to be married, should not be tolerated.’

Alberto Manguel in The Library at Night speaks of a certain boredom that seizes you when arranging books in geometrical progression (alphabetical, subject, genre, series, etc) and wonders what would happens if he became really whimsical with the bookshelves. He has always wanted, he says, a personal library full of just his most thumbed copies. Or books on a bookshelf arranged in the degree of his fondness for them. He would imagine all sorts of fantastical bookshelf arrangements in the night, and later, in the light of day, sadly dismiss them as impractical.

He quotes Maurus, the forgotten medieval essayist: “Books have their own fates.” Some nights he has even dreamt of bookshelves that are entirely anonymous where the books are without author or title or genre converging into one dazzling narrative.

In this stream, Manguel goes on to say keeping the river metaphor afloat, the hero of The Castle finds passage aboard the Pequod in his search for the Holy Grail only to find himself deserted on an island. And it is in this way that we experience our books, our personal libraries: As One Book. No wonder Borges imagined paradise to be a kind of library.     

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