May 4th, 2011 / 12:26 pm
Blind Items & Random & Word Spaces

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?

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  1. letters journal

      I have long dreamed of a ‘perfect’ book organizing method that took into account spine color, height, and subject matter. Unfortunately, a three variable equation would require 3 dimensions, but books are a shelf are essentially ‘2 dimensional’ because spine color is only on one side. So my dream is impossible. (And if it was possible it would take a lot of tinkering to find the correct weight to give each variable, how to quantify subject, etc).

      Height and subject would be awesome though – it would look like waves.

  2. kb

      Organized as to where they belong, by feel or intuition or whatever. It’s mostly all philosophy and fiction (the other smaller meme is outdoorsy/nature/ecological/animal books), but they’re all mixed together and sometimes books by different authors in different places entirely.

      Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’ and Infinite Jest are next to each other. Not for any foofy lala eastern mysticism in Wallace or anything like that, but because they both seem to me to be systems so complex and self-defeating that they end up not being systems at all. But they are.

  3. Paul Clark

      “Seinfeld……Never watched it not a fan”. Such such such such a funny moment in the history of CURB……..I think its actually from the hour long special larry david did for HBO…….Larry calls a guy up trying to help another guy get a job and when he the guy hes calling picks up larry says “hello Brian………this is larry david……….creator of seinfeld………”………the guy on the other end says…….”seinfeld………….never watched it ……not a fan”………….really funny………if you could see it and especially if you know anything about Larry David……….he makes the best face ever when he hears that…..sort of stumbles forward in the conversation So trying to ignore the obnoxious comment and then BLAMMO………….he interupts the guy and just starts the best fight over the phone…………all this while trying to be a reference for a guy looking to get a new job………..SO FUNNY!!!!!!………even when larry’s insulted and correct about how obnoxious this schmuck brian was to him………..he still gets in trouble not with Brian but now also with the guy HE was trying to help in the first place, who by the way was a receptionist for someone……..a person someone of larry david’s stature would never go out of his to help…………the show is the best show on tv right now……..

      anyway……… moving right along……..

  4. M. Kitchell

      i’ve been getting rid of books for the last three years since i knew at some point i would be moving, but now it turns out almost everything is just going into storage anyway, so i guess i could have held on to things. but, i couldn’t really do the autobiography thing due to getting rid of everything i didn’t deem absolutely essential (which is still far, far too many books).

  5. Kristen Iskandrian

      yes. space is always an issue. if it weren’t, i’d like to keep shelves empty at the intervals where great purging took place–in memoriam, placeholders for a moment of silence. but then again maybe if it weren’t, purging wouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

  6. M. Kitchell

      I think you’re onto something here. Or rather, this comment made me realize something– I’ve been trying to consider the place of curation & narrative in relation to things (systems?) that don’t normally take on these “things” (god I should really get my parts of speech down it would make talking easier). for instance, interior design– if we take something that is generally considered to be purely aesthetic, and inject it with narrative, what happens (this is basically bachelard in this case, right? another unread book on the shelf)? the narrative of a bookshelf, a curated bookshelf, that seems really awesome. in my last post the idea of a curated bookstore was brought up, and how it really seems like nobody truly does it right because there’s the issue of capital involved. i feel like i definitely try to curate my book collection, i.e. as i said, i get rid of everything that i don’t find necessary/ will not read again / do not need for reference, etc, so constructing this collection into a specifically visual narrative seems like a really fucking awesome thing to do. i want everything in my life to be running narrative through it.

  7. karl taro

      Top left on my shelf would be the first book I read entirely on my own: Peanuts Classics. I found a panel in which Charlie Brown gets tangled in kite string to be hilarious. There was only one dialogue bubble in the whole series, over Charlie Brown sitting in a bathtub, the kite string still wrapped around him. “Years from now, when my draft board asks me how I got caught in this kite string, I’ll tell them it’s a long story.” (I’m paraphrasing.) For some reason, as a five year old, that slayed me. I was laughing so loudly that my mother came upstairs to my room to see if something was wrong. Looking back, I don’t understand what I found so funny.

      That book survived many moves before I found it in my parents’ house and gave it to my 7-year old daughter. And for some reason, she loved that particular panel as well.

  8. Kristen Iskandrian

      curation & narrative–yes. i went back and re-read your post and i can’t help but think of walter benjamin (what else is new) and how essentially we ‘curate’ anything we collect, no? clothing, books, trinkets, websites/time online–whatever we find beautiful or compelling. i feel constant tension between my drive to hoard and my drive to throw away, but even what gets tossed gets curated first. when i move into a new space i become consumed with details, with every item’s significance, every item’s narrative. so exhausting.

  9. kb

      This is my perfect aesthetic ideal: An all-inclusive system that is perfect in that it completely devours itself, but then regenerates and is then more lucid and compact, devours itself, smaller system, nothing again, …. I don’t know how it would end. This is just a satisfying notion to me, like when I imagine it, it goes “ka-chunk.” Anyone ever have a problem with having to blink or cough over and over until you get the “right one”? This may be ocd stuff.

  10. kb

      I did this about a year and a half ago. I had piles. Now I have a managable bookshelf. It took me a couple months to figure out what was “essential”.

  11. Charles

      Great movie, great post. That scene is one of my many favorites from that movie. I’ve often thought of doing that type of deal with cds, back when all the cds were on display and i was always getting new ones and now the thought of doing it with books enters my mind.
      But-it seems as if my organization would be such a fluid thing. Read a new book by an author and then I remember how much I enjoyed a previous book. And would I need to readjust the shelf? I don’t know. And even if it was a period based organization I would hate to have a book i didn’t much like next to a book that I loved. It’s like if they talked to each other then they might ruin the good one.

  12. shaun gannon

      I need another set of bookshelves but I don’t have the room for it in my bedroom, so I organize them purely by size and jam them in wherever they fit, even if it’s sideways and on top of stacks of DVDs.

  13. Anonymous
  14. Anonymous