There’s a scene in High Fidelity, a 2000 film starring John Cusack, in which Cusack as the main character, Rob, a record store owner and music fanatic, decides to organize his extensive record collection. When Rob’s friend/employee, Dick, enters Rob’s apartment and sees the dozens of albums stacked across the floor he surmises that an organization project is underway and attempts to guess Rob’s methodology. Chronological? Alphabetical? No, Rob tells him: Autobiographical. He explains as an example that if he were to look for the Fleetwood Mac record “Landslide,” he would have to remember that he bought it in 1983 for a friend but kept it “for personal reasons.”
Dick: That sounds…
Rob: Comforting. Yes.
Rob is comforted by his music collection just as we readers are comforted by our book collections. And like Rob, we can be obsessive about the manner in which we arrange, organize, and display the many books we have gathered over the years. The beauty of personal libraries is that they are unfettered by outside rules and regulations, like The Dewey Decimal System or The Library of Congress. If you so choose, you can even arrange your books to create a rainbow of bindings!
There are so many idiosyncrasies to how we curate our bookshelves….Where to even begin counting the ways? Do we interfile fiction and non-fiction? Someone close to me recently re-organized his collection so that his books are arranged from most fictional to most realistic, a spectrum that begins with Fantasy and ends with the Sciences. I could never follow this method, given the glaring lack of non-fiction books that I own (not counting memoirs and poetry); I certainly do not own any science books.
I follow a Personal Hierarchical System of Book Organizing (I’m still working on the official, trademarked title). My favorite books get the prime real estate: top and center shelves, luxuriously displayed with few tchotchkes and horizontally placed books obscuring their spines. These special books include: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, She’s Come Undone, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, and a random Harry Potter (I think it’s The Half-Blood Prince—it serves as a proud representative of the Harry Potter series). This leads to my next question: how do we incorporate new favorites into the mix? For instance, I am a big admirer of John Green and I own every book he’s written. Of course, I want them all to be displayed together, but where do I put them? Sadly, my home—though overflowing with books—does not contain a library, a la Beauty and the Beast, and at this point I am so attached to my current order that the thought of…gulp…bumping something to a lower shelf fills me with anxiety. As it is my two bookcases each look like they are hosting a game of Tetris—books are crammed and stacked every which way. And it’s still not enough room! I am a grown woman with books stacked on the floor! I should also mention my stash of old school books that are stored under my bed in a giant container. As an undergrad and grad student studying Literature, I amassed quite a collection of novels, anthologies and textbooks. Of course, I rarely if ever sold back books from my Literature courses, instead holding on to them like relics (a common theme among book lovers: holding on to books not because you love them, but because you love what they represent, like a certain period of time in your life). My general rule of thumb is that any school books that are “literary” like novels and poetry collections get added to my general collection, while more academic works get stored in the hidden container (which is filled to the brims).
A few years ago I attempted to get my personal library into shape by dedicating one bookcase to books that I had read and the other bookcase to books that I had not yet read. If you ever want to feel literarily overwhelmed, give this exercise a try. It was shocking to see how many books I own but have not read. This begs another question: Is it better to keep the unread books front and center to remind us of their existence? Then again, are books meant to shame us into reading them? How long does a book have to sit on our shelves, unread, before we decide to weed it from our collection?
Ahh…another tough topic: weeding your library. It’s easy to get rid of books you’ve read and didn’t like, or at least feel no real emotional attachment towards. Likewise, it is also easy to get rid of books you received as ill-conceived gifts. What I find most difficult is eliminating those books that I own but have not yet read—or an entire bookcase worth of books, if you’ve been paying attention. The books we own but have not yet read contain the promise of magic, the hope of becoming an all-powerful FAVORITE BOOK. Every book we read could potentially get added to our personal pantheon of life-changing, all-consuming, must-tell-everyone-I-have-ever-known book list. How can we get rid of these when they hold such promise?
However, I do believe that it is important to check in with the state of our personal libraries, in terms of what to donate and what to hold on to, if only to reconnect with old favorites and/or push ourselves to pay attention to the books we’ve been ignoring. Looking through your book collection can be akin to looking through a family scrapbook; books transport us to different times in our lives and allow us to relive the emotions we felt when we first discovered the world of Hogwarts or the mind of Stephen King. On the flip side of this, we should take a critical eye to our bookshelves just as we would to our closets. We pull out a ragged t-shirt or a pair of faded jeans and ask ourselves, When did I last wear this? Have I ever worn this? Will I ever wear this? Maybe we should take a similar approach when considering our books.
If we are what we read and we like to show our best face to the world, then it stands to reason that the books we choose to display might not always be the best indicator of our deepest, most sincere literary loves. What I mean to ask is this: Do you pick and choose which books are most visible based on how you believe others will perceive you because of these books? Are “smart” books or more highbrow books prominently displayed, while guilty pleasure books are tucked away into the back corners and dark recesses of the bookcase? I feel no shame in saying that I have read all of Chelsea Handler’s books, and with the exception of her most recent (Uganda Be Kidding Me), I own them all (great road trip reading, as far as I’m concerned). Right now, they sit beside one another on a bottom shelf, victims of the severe space shortage that I have been bemoaning. But, even if I did have that Beauty and the Beast library, would I really use to it show off my Chelsea Handler books? If anything, my apparent pride would be more about the fact that I have the set. How do you handle the conundrum of guilty pleasure books?
I would genuinely love to know how other people organize their books. Alphabetically? Chronologically? Autobiographically? Do you follow what I like to think of as the “Peas and Carrots” method (all credit to Forrest Gump on that one), the feeling that some books just belong together? I am fixated on this topic because giving order to our home libraries feels like creating a map to a treasure we have already found. We create thruways and shortcuts so that we may find our way back to the stories that have sustained us or that hold the promise of capturing our imaginations. The map that I make will be different from the map that you create.
My final question: Won’t you please share with us your stories of personal library organization? All the ins and outs, including the struggle for shelf space, the excitement when a new favorite is added to the bunch, and the torment that comes with saying goodbye to a member of the collection. Leave a comment or even Tweet us a photo of your bookcase(s) @levittownpl.