Not A-Z, but I-Me
There’s a scene in that movie High Fidelity (based on the Nick Hornby book, I guess, which I didn’t read) where John Cusack’s character reveals to Dick, his record store employee (played quite brilliantly by Todd Louiso), that he (Cusack) was in the midst of reorganizing his record collection–in autobiographical order.
I’ve always loved that idea.
I have boxes of books still waiting to be unpacked and I’m taking my time because a.) I need more shelves and b.) I want to be deliberate with my organizational system. In the past, I’ve gone alphabetical. But the alphabet is boring, strictly utilitarian–it doesn’t really tell a story. Like songs on an album or stories in a collection, sequencing can become its own narrative, and I figure if I’m so consumed with form in most other areas, why ignore an opportunity. My plan is to reserve one small bookcase for my “currently reading” or “to-read” books–I used to keep these on an end table that constantly threatened to tip over–and to arrange the rest autobiographically.
My top shelf, then, would probably be the books I was reading when I first figured out how I felt about books. I only have in my possession a few of the ones I read as a kid or early teenager–they won’t take up much room. Then came the high school era of reading: Fitzgerald, Salinger, Hawthorne, James. The white American dudes who wrote a lot about white American dudes and gave me the durable-though-not-permanent impression that novels were linear and “realistic” and somehow all brethren. Some anthologies belong in there. A pretty sizable stint of Shakespeare, which won’t take up much room since it’s one big book. A few shelves later would be more old poetry and then an onslaught of women and women poets (Austen! Bronte! Rich! Woolf! Dickinson! Loy! etc.!) and a brief but intense sojourn with the Beats. The Nabokov period. Also there would have to be space for the Boyfriend Books–ones given to me and ones I read in order to feel given-to–probably immediately followed by the French Women. Between college and grad school I was mostly in New York, so there would be the New York shelves. The gardening books, when I left the city for the country and the novelty of a little yard made me think I liked to garden. And so on, through grad school and beyond.
Mostly, then, this type of organizing relies on a chronology of reading. If I can remember the book, I can remember the time/place/event, and vice versa. I wonder where those books will go that I’ve returned to and keep returning to–Beckett, Davis, Faulkner, many others. Do I shelve them where I first read them, or do I allow for some “perennial” shelves?
It’s going to take a while. But I’m excited to shrug off the alphabet. And to revisit my life with all of its embarrassments–because with remembering always comes embarrassment–and obsessions.
What might your shelves look like?