[Originally published Oct. 21, 2012.]
For most couples, this would be thin gruel for a contretemps. But my sister is a bibliophile and married a man of similar passions. They had just completed a house renovation, a feature of which was a magnificent bookshelf that spanned two floors. All had gone well as they placed their novels, histories, memoirs. But schism had arisen over the biographies. She wanted to shelve them alpha by subject, on the grounds that she wouldn’t necessarily be able to recall the author’s name. (Since she is, herself, a biographer, this view seemed both pragmatic and un-self-aggrandising.) But that notion was anathema to her husband, who wanted to follow proper library practice. Heated words had been exchanged.
I’ve had a frank exchange of views on this topic with my own girlfriend, although tempers and conversational temperature remained in check and unheated, respectively. Apparently she considers my method a benevolent sort of madness, though she finds it cruelly amusing to occasionally threaten to organize my shelves by alphabetical order when I’m not around.
You see, I combine a certain aesthetic rigidity with its polar opposite, a full-blown touchy-feely mysticism. On any given shelf, a certain pattern will be unerringly followed: tallest books on the ends, sloping gently down to the shortest books in the middle. All other schematics, such as author’s name, book title, or subject matter, are absolutely subordinate to this rule. Occasionally, I’ll attempt to group a single author’s works together, but if doing so would disrupt the even, proportional harmony of tall-to-short, then they’ll just have to settle for sharing the same shelf.
Over the years, I got new bookcases as the need presented itself, and proceeded to fill them chronologically; i.e., books went on the shelf in order of purchase. Glancing over a shelf could trigger a strong memory of, say, the winter of 2002, seeing all the associated reading material of that time period arranged together (and if I were a frustrated lit major, this would be the place to insert a Pretentious Proust Reference). Most of my bookcases were either mismatched secondhand-shop orphans, or affordable big-box particle-board types.
But several years ago, I inherited two beautiful handmade walnut cases as a housewarming gift. Their superior quality and irresistible symmetry dovetailed perfectly with their placement in the great room, and so I did something uncharacteristically bold and radical — I rearranged my books in order to house all my favorites within them. I imagined these shelves as conversation pieces — leaving aside the fact that I rarely have visitors, let alone visitors who share my reading taste, but never mind all that, just humor me here — and thought: which books best combine aesthetic appeal with substance? Which arrangement would both catch the eye and stimulate the brain of any casual browser?
And so I began the laborious process of choosing sentimental favorites and arranging them together in new tall-to-short relationships, seeking to feel some sort of poetic feng shui as I casually ran my eye over them. Once things were arranged to my liking, I committed them to my intermittent eidetic memory, only making the occasional changes after rigorous consideration. Really, I consider this discipline to be akin to bonsai sculpture; I’m just using tree byproducts rather than actual trees.
Yesterday, when I wanted to quote the epigraph to Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, I went to the spot where it had always been — in the middle of the second shelf down, on the white bookcase beside my bed. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t on any of the shelves in that case. A couple of her books were in that spot, in fact. I finally found it in one of the bookcases out in the great room. It was arranged by size, in the middle along with other mass-market paperbacks, but still… “Do you remember moving it there?” she asked, the picture of innocence. “No,” I replied, though now I’m not as sure.
I’ve got my eye on her now. I suspect gaslighting.