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?
Thank you for sharing this! I spend rather a lot of time organizing and re-organizing my library (which is currently mostly boxed up at the moment, awaiting the creation of new shelves). I always find myself a little lacking when I try a conventional brick and mortar library approach to book classification, because my own tastes are not well balanced by those catagories. I inevitably find myself with a handful of leftover misfit books feeling forlorn amongst their incongruent neighbours. Furthermore, I deliberate about the relative prominence that different books accrue based on the stature of their companions. I fret about less enticing books hiding thin paperback treasures. This is especially true in my collection of children’s picture books, where size, shape, and material range dramatically.
One home education philosophy I subscribe to suggests organizing books in a way that inspires learning, such that in locating one book on my shelves, my fingers may graze the spines of others related to my initial interest that may deepen my study once I am satiated with the volume I initially sought. I like the idea of this, certainly for my children, but have not settled comfortably into this method due to my aforementioned conflicting feelings regarding outliers and bulky volumes of lower value.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Wow! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You bring up a lot of excellent points!
I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who re-organizes. 🙂 I can certainly empathize with the problem of book “misfits” (usually I have an unofficial section of them tucked away somewhere. I’m just realizing, now, as I write this, that maybe I need to champion them, celebrate their uniqueness… How to, I’m not sure). This is the first time I’ve heard of the method of organizing books in a way that “inspires learning,” and I think it’s profound. I’m really glad you shared that. I wonder what it would look like in practice – it seems to me that it could be quite varied depending on who organized the books. And then yes, there is the challenge of the “incongruent neighbours.” I’d be curious to know what you come up with in organizing your library this time through!
By the way, the image of your books packed in boxes makes me think of Walter Benjamin’s personal essay “Unpacking My Library.” It’s a great read, especially if you’re interested in the book as a physical object.
Thanks again for your great insight!
My books are divided by function into two broad categories: books that inspire resolve to make the world better and books that inspire joy. The second category is further divided based on how much time I have to enjoy them – novels are grouped together for when I want to enjoy a nice long book, and poetry, art, creative nonfiction are grouped together for when a few minutes is all I need or have time for.
Thanks for your post Heather! I’m excited to read what’s next!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I like that!- organize by what inspires you to make the world a better place and what inspires joy. I also like the idea to subdivide according to how much time you have to read. I might just have to adopt that!
Stay tuned! Up next will be tips on writing…
LikeLiked by 1 person
I have a few bookshelves in my home. One I am particularly fond of is a simple built-in wall unit. The theme of the entire shelf is adventure. I have placed a few reference books of the world around us; there are also adventure fiction books such as Lord of the Rings, Walden, and Doctor Dolittle. I have included a few real life adventure stories and accounts. You may take a look at my small collection by clicking here.
Previously, I attempted to display everything I could, wherever I could. Now I have a simple criteria of theme and size. A less-is-more display approach works just fine for me.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for commenting, David! I like the idea of having bookshelves scattered throughout your place. It’s as though that makes your entire home a library! (I currently have my bookshelves in one room . . . the books themselves, however, seem to spread outwards on their own.) And thanks for giving us a sneak-peak at your collection!
Theme and size are a great way to organize! There is something quite fitting about having an adventure shelf all on its own.
Some years ago, after returning from a trip away, I found that my collection of CDs (so this is “back in the day”) had been completely reorganized alphabetically. The very well meaning person who had been house-sitting was of a rather “linear” nature, and, at the time, all I could think of was thank Goodness she didn’t get into my bookshelves. That is when I began to really take notice about the stylistic approaches that inhabit different people.
In my own academic and practical endeavours, I had given much time and thought to the work of Howard Gardner (Frames of Mind, 1983- Multiple Intelligences,1993) and Anthony Gregorc (An Adult’s Guide to Style,1982). Gardner, originally, made a case for eight intelligences, and one of these he called “The Naturalist”. This intelligence described people who had a preponderance for gathering data and artifacts (not simply about flora and fauna) but also about various other fields of interest such as music, sports, literature and many other collectable type hobbies such as: birding, butterflies, cards, dolls, spoons etc. Collected data and artifacts (such as my cd collection) from any of these areas of interest, could be stored, organized, quantified, displayed (like books), and manipulated in many many other ways. So, I would suggest that people like you and I, Heather, who love and collect books have a strong pull toward Gardner”s “Naturalist” intelligence. This bent may also run in your family.
Anthony Gregorc, in his notion of “style” and in his “Style Delineator” explored a four quodrant notion of: of 1) how people “conceptualize” (abstractly or concretely) and 2) how people organize themselves and their stuff (randomly or in a linear way). To break this out further, one’s dominant style is revealed in Gregorc’s four quodrant display as having dominance as an: 1) abstract-sequential; 2) abstract-random, 3) concrete-sequential and or 4) concrete-random way. Typically an alphabetical organizational system might be considered an abstract-sequential one, while a system based on what you, Heather, called an “associational approach” of which one may not be fully aware, or is perhaps based on “how it feels” might be classified as a concrete-sequential or even a concrete-random approach.
I have over simplified Gardner’s and Gregorc’s theoretical ideas here, but it is an attempt to give an abstract-sequential (somewhat academic) explanation as to how we may organize our bookshelves and the rest of our collectable stuff. I certainly hope these ideas give rise to further questions about our own propensity to do things in certain ways that are different from the ways of others. I guess this gives some meaning to the idea that: “It takes all kinds to make a whole bunch”.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yes, I’m glad to know that your bookshelves were saved from a re-organization by well-meaning “linear” organizer. 🙂
This is so interesting – the idea that we have “styles” and “intelligences” that influence the ways in which we might organize and conceptualize things in our lives – even a collection of books! I’d never heard of Gregorc and Gardner, but they sound intriguing. Thank you for introducing their theories and for sharing the sources in which these are found.
So I’m a naturalist because I collect books! 🙂 I think it’s fascinating that a “Naturalist” intelligence isn’t limited to the kind of collecting which that word evokes for me (the flora and fauna, as you say). Does having a “Naturalist” intelligence apply to any kind of collecting of physical objects? Can it also be applied to non-physical things? I am reminded that, while taking a folklore class in grad school, we were assigned to “collect” folklore items. That is, we were to interview people about a particular topic or story etc., recording their responses on a digital audio recorder, then transcribe, print, and submit it to the folklore archives at the university. I suppose, then, this “collecting” was in a way transforming the non-physical into the physical. But I still am wondering about Gardner’s theory and the possibility of collecting things which are intangible.
These are fascinating ideas you’ve presented, ones which I’m going to have to explore further. Definitely going to check out Gregorc and Gardner’s books!
Thanks for taking the time to share and comment!