The motorbike I received a year later, upon finishing middle school, didn’t delight me half as much as that crate filled with books. So many books spanning so many genres: from Huck Finn to White Fang; from Pollyanna to Greek mythology; from Italian literary classics to Calvino’s fairy tales. Enough books to last me for a year – or so my dad hoped, probably sick and tired of being dragged to the bookstore every couple of weeks by his voracious daughter.
My life and my physical space have always been filled by books. Some of my most precious possessions are stacked in cardboard boxes in my mother’s garage, for my impossibility of lugging them around the world. Those I have had an almost symbiotic relationship with still follow me around from the early days: Fitzgerald’s complete works in a leather-bound volume of pages so thin to be almost transparent; my very first copy of War and Peace in four paperbacks; Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden that opened my eyes to a more contemporary literature.
Now I am having a reckoning of sorts with the volumes that have filled my shelves and my head, even if, a few years ago, long before the appearance of Marie Kondo, I made a pact with myself that, upon finishing every book, I would ask myself two questions:
- did the book give me so much pleasure I was bound to open it again to look for specific passages?
- was I likely to re-read it?
If the answer was no to both questions, the book had to find its way out of my house. By and large, I have stuck to the promise.
Nonetheless, physical books still find their way in because I cannot resist a used bookstore, especially when I travel, or because I participate in book exchanges or will pick up orphan books here and there that look interesting. The result is a jumble of book piles that represent what I still have to read and shelves everywhere filled beyond capacity.
There is a method to my madness but I can’t claim it foolproof, especially if I am looking for something in a hurry. After a brief stint working in a bookstore, I adopted their conventional method of shelving: by subject.
Hence, I have a section for travel, one for health, one for yoga and so on and on but the rub is that the bulk of my collection is taken up by fiction and literature. And finding what I am looking for is akin to finding the way out of a maze – could it be in the living room’s bookcase, or my office? Maybe the guest room?
I read with a touch of envy a bevy of charming posts dedicated to color coordinating books and I flirt with the idea of doing the same but, as pleasing to the eye as it might be, it also requires a photographic memory of all the covers if I am ever to find anything again. Not likely.
I tried alphabetizing but, then again, once a shelf is full, the system requires too much rearranging.
Lately, I have been taking a more whimsical approach. I think of the authors, or the characters, and I wonder whose company they might enjoy, or, in other words, I free associate. Maya Angelou would no doubt love to spend some time with Toni Morrison but how about some Nabokov to her right, to remind him that misogyny is out of fashion?
The mysterious volume of Merseyside poems lord knows why I even bought and why I can’t part with can only be tolerated by McEwan’s precision and sense of humor. George Eliot can debate with Wharton and Primo Levi can delight in his survival in the face of Anna Karenina’s death. If Anna had met Primo, chances are she would have hopped on that train.
I am not sure this method will withstand the test of time nor my impulse searches but it’s been an exercise in reacquainting myself with books I hadn’t touched in a long time and in re-evaluating what has stayed with me over the passing of time. We can’t remember entire books but what we remember of each one is very revealing.
The Merseyside poems? I bought them long before I fell in love with a Liverpudlian, thirty years ago but, when I look at that volume, I now think of him. I couldn’t tell you much of the plot of The Naked and the Dead but, to this day, I know that Norman Mailer irritates me and I keep him around to remind me of that irritation. Corelli’s Mandolin is forever attached to Sue, who made me read it, even if the story now escapes me.
Whether we read to find bits of ourselves, to understand ourselves or the world better, to fill a void or a need, to learn or to escape or to live all those lives we will never have a chance to live, each book is also intertwined with phases in our lives and the people in them.
None of the easier to manage tomes in the cloud give me the same pleasure – it’s harder to associate them to the exact moment I decided on a download. Which is why my shelves will keep on shifting and changing as I perpetually rearrange them in search of the perfect system: touching my steadfast friends brings a satisfaction I cannot give up.
Do you have a method to keep your books neatly arranged? Or have you given in to the cloud?