On Disorganizing My Books

Recently, when retrieving a writing book on my shelf to lend — Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, a third edition copy with a “USED” black-on-yellow sticker screaming its second-hand status on its spine — I realized that no one else would have known where to find it. It was not in a logical place (i.e. with other books on writing), nor was it beside the fourth edition of the same book which I also happened to own. No, that was tucked between the hot pink all-caps title Sudden Fiction International and the classy typeface of Poetry 180 with the “8” slightly enlarged, and — on its side — appearing like the infinity symbol. 

Rather, Imaginative Writing (3rd ed.) was — for anyone else — in a seemingly random place: beside The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places by Gaston Bachelard.

My personal library, in other words, was not intuitively organized.

Or, more accurately, I had organized my eclectic collection so intuitively to me that anyone not privy to the inner workings of my mind would be utterly unable to find anything in it.

Of course, I’m using slight hyperbole here. There were some obvious broad strokes of logic to my library: a reference section with Dictionaries of and Companions to almost everything (mainly literature — English, Canadian, Classical, French). An entire bookcase of writing by and scholarship on L.M. Montgomery, with a sub-section dedicated to my various editions of Anne of Green Gables — thirteen, to be precise. A prized shelf of old-looking books — the kind you’d be tempted to take a picture of — with gilt titles on red or blue or green cloth spines.

But Burroway beside Bachelard?

The case was simple: I’d picked up Burroway (3rd ed.) at the same university bookstore where I’d bought my (also) used copy of Bachelard, both to read for fun. Incidentally, I’d never made it through either, but that’s purely coincidental — it was the location of acquisition and intent of reading them that mattered. Though the three other books in question (Burroway 4th ed., and the poetry and fiction anthologies) also came from the same bookstore, they were in an entirely different section in my mind, and consequently, library: I’d used them to teach an introductory course on creative writing. The two Burroways were, therefore, stored compartmentally apart.

It was as though my entire life was encoded in the way I organized my books.

Instinctively almost, I knew I could locate every book in my library. Even if I didn’t know them by their spines (which I did), I knew their proper places by a simple set of rules, no more complex than that of the English language, I told myself.

David L. Ulin writes in The Lost Art of Reading that as a teenager, he arranged his books “according to preference, with my favorite authors . . . on a shelf in the center of the wall, everything else radiating outward from that core.” Brilliant. But it gets even better: “In my mind, this was the library as virtual city, a litropolis, in which the further you were from the axis, the less essential a story you had to tell.”

Simple. Profound. Straightforward. A litropolis. I like it. When I was a teenager, I was a little less original: I organized my books by series and size, in descending order, with the tallest books closest to my bed.

I realized that I still, to a certain extent, organized my books by size and series, though I almost hesitate admitting this. Shouldn’t I have graduated to a more sophisticated system? I guess that’s beside the point. (It’s still so practical, the prosaic part of me protests.)

But then, there were associations only I would understand.

As I looked around, I noted the product of the unruly rules of organization I’d created: I had books by Thomas Hardy alongside poetry by Milton and Christina Rossetti, but the latter’s biography — and even other books of her poems — were in entirely different sections. These decisions, I realized, had nothing to do with the books’ content, size, or even series. I had organized my books by the classes I had taken — in the present case, I’d happened to take seminar courses on these three writers while in grad school.

I looked around some more.

I still had that lovely shelf of Oxford white-spine-with-red-tip paperbacks of literature on a top shelf, alongside the curiously similar looking Penguin black-spine-with-red-or-yellow-tip paperbacks of the same size. But there were others from each of these printer series peppered throughout a lower shelf. In a ragged array of sizes and series, Marlowe was amongst Descartes, Heideggger, Hume, and Rousseau; Montaigne was amongst Hegel, Hobbes, Derrida, and Kant. I’d taken a great books course (albeit with a heavy lean towards philosophy) at a liberal arts college, and that association was stronger than the one of series/size (“i before e, except after c”).

As I thought more about how I organized my library, I realized I was not even consciously aware of why I’d put certain books beside others: some by where I’d bought them, others by which classes I’d studied them in, some by content (I had somehow managed to put the majority of my CanLit books more or less together).

And yet, I realized that, along with my books on writing, my creative nonfiction was scattered throughout the entirety of my bookcases, as was my poetry, with pockets of plays and small sections of specialized nonfiction among the larger sections of fiction.

On a whim, I decided to undo years of hard non-thinking work and reorganize my books in a logical manner — by genre.

I’m not convinced this wasn’t a mistake.

Sure, I can now go to my shelf and easily point to the section on writing (further organized by sub-genre, then alphabetized by writer’s last name). But I can’t help but feel at a loss for scrambling up the associative juxtapositions of my mind.

Question: How do you organize your personal library?