November 15, 2010
A Tour Around My Library
I’ve been tinkering with LibraryThing this morning because it strikes me as a tool made for people like me. Actually, I got an email almost exactly a year ago from Library Thing’s founder Tim Spalding offering to move heaven and earth to get me to use the service, so apparently I’m not the only one who thinks it’s the Tool For Me. After a couple hours of data entry and flailing, however, I am bewildered. I’m still not clear what I should be doing with it. I thought once I had all my books listed some kind of use or purpose might become clear, but when I ran into the 200-book limit of the free account I gave up and bailed.
Even the few books listed so far look wrong to me, like books I don’t own with only the most symbolic relevance to my actual shelves. I’m sure this is something that can be fixed with effort as I clean up ISBNs and covers, but there’s more to it than that. I think my “collection” might be too much of a mess to catalogue like this, or maybe just my collecting habits (which do, yes, run towards hoarding). Certainly my shelving and sorting regime is eccentric. It isn’t messy (well, okay, it is) or disorganized, in fact I’ve got every last book shelves exactly where I want it. Sub-collections, groupings and pairings mean a lot to me. But there’s a gradient, a volatility, a flexibility I enjoy that makes labeling difficult. I moved three months ago from a place I’d lived in for five solid years to a bigger, much more book-friendly space. To this day I have not unpacked several boxes of books because I can’t decide where to put them. Until exactly the right placing presents itself, I’d sooner keep them in boxes.
But enough of the words. If the internet has taught us nothing else, it has revealed that bookshelves are better seen than described. Mine aren’t works of art (I’m aesthetically and artistically barren), but I feel they explain my collection better than LibraryThing can.
This is a typical Charlotte’s Book Shelf. A disaster, yes. But look closer.
In fact, the shelf houses several sub-collections. The top is Old Valuable Books of No Particular Subject (including a 6-volume Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen and a 1st edition Once and Future King by T.H. White in dust jacket). Next, pictured here (left), is Canadian Literature, Trade Paperbacks – which is to say, minus hardcovers and mass market editions (which are grouped elsewhere). Below that we have Contemporary Literature, Trade Paperbacks stacked in front of (and quite obscuring) Literary Non-Fiction, Paperbacks (below). Are you still with me? Good.
Further ’round the room things got more complicated. I have one entire bookcase devoted to hardcovers, and I’m still not clear exactly how to order them, so I went with the unusual tactic of shelving by preference. That is, my Favourite Hardcover Novels are on top, followed by my Favourite Hardcover Non-Fiction Titles (including my becoming-unwieldy sub-collection of Robertson Davies reference works). Below that we have Assorted Books On Magic Which Are Too Big To Shelve Alsewhere (including Plato’s Complete Works and a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary – not strictly books on the occult, but if you think creatively enough it fits), and taller pieces of my husband’s Tolkien collection, which continues on the next shelf.
A note on my husband’s books: he doesn’t have many. When we started dating I made it clear I was a book collector, but I don’t think he realized he the gravity of the situation until we moved in together and he found he was moving into a library. Whatever impulses he might have had to buy books were quickly and firmly quashed by pragmatism. Who needs to buy books when you live in a library? It would be cheaper this way. To his credit, he has not (yet) become a spouse who demands the collection be culled. Much.
My collection of Alexandre Dumas is actually much less well-ordered than you’d think. It had the misfortune of being unloaded next to the computer, and next-to-the-computer detritus inevitably joined my little Musketeers and Cardinal’s Men up there.
The Young Adult Literature, on the other hand, came together just fine. Of course, half of it seems to be missing. What does this say about my friends and family that this is what is most frequently borrowed from my shelves?
I am a big one for “prioritizing” my books. Not, like a smart lady, in terms of “read” and “unread”, but in terms of “to be shown off” and “to be hidden”. I acquire quite a lot of free books in the form of damaged discards, promos and garage sale finds which I take without discrimination, reasoning that I might need them some day, or you never know when something will come in handy. On the other hand, I don’t really want to display copies of, say, Atlas Shrugged, beat up old editions of Augustine and Defoe, Environmental Studies textbooks, or somewhat dogmatic analyses of current events like It’s the Crude, Dude or God Is Not Great. These go on bottom shelves, or are hidden in my bedroom.
But, find an empty bookshelf and find some books to fill it – if my house were a bookstore, we’d also call this “overstock”. So much of this stuff is books I just don’t know what to do with. In a fit of frustration, I started shelving these by publisher. I also discovered, to my dismay, that I have no fewer than three full shelves of back-issues of magazines – old Walruses and National Geographics mainly – things which shelve poorly and were relegated to the Shelves of Shame for their lack of spine. Sadly, this is also where my old, beat-up mass market Canadian books are. Not that they are objects of shame, but mass market editions fit poorly onto Billy bookshelves, which offer so much vertical space that they’re best filled with the taller trade paperbacks and hardcovers.
Ah, the office. Moving into the new house we harboured a fantasy that we’d have time to lock ourselves away and work on our respective intellectual pursuits. Ha! Maybe in another two years, when the 2-year-old doesn’t regard a closed door as a mortal offense. Still, I like to think my Book History collection and my husband’s Philosophy books look nice all together.
Now don’t be misled by all the empty space. I’ve boxes and boxes of books left to unpack – but I’m paralyzed with indecision right now. I don’t know where to put my piles of mass market fantasy books – they can’t very well be shelved next to Philosophy or in the the Nabokov. And surely there’s a better use of my office shelves than unloading the remaining damaged and garage-saled miscellany into it? And I tell you I don’t know where I’m going to put this 3-Volume Autobiography of Mark Twain when I get it home – it needs a shelf unto itself.
Anyway, it’s not all a giant mess. I have at least one nice, reasonably well-organized shelf. I’d better not add anything to the collection though, I’m plum out of space.
I’ve been working on a collection on The Intellectual Roots of Speculative Fiction, and this is much of it. Myths, legends, epics, retellings and early fantasies – these go here. As more arrive the contemporary genre titles get shuffled away (into oblivion – they don’t have a home yet). That’s the way of my sorting. Placeholders, like-titles, reclassified as space requires. There’s no hard-and-fast rules. I keep Crowley’s Little, Big with this History of Fantasy stuff, along side Lord Dunsany and The Worm Ouroboros. But Nalo Hopkinson and Charles de Lint will have to move on eventually – exactly why I couldn’t tell you, but they don’t belong, just yet.
I tired to denote this with overlapping categories on Library Thing, but every time I moved a book I felt pressure to change all the categories. With several thousand titles, I think this could start to become ridiculous. So I’m out, Library Thing. I tried. I’m either too organized or not organized enough for you! But thank you, and I will enjoy browsing other peoples’ libraries for the time being.
Oh, and if you’re curious – you can view my minimal Library Thing profile here. Maybe you can spot what I’m doing wrong? Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed my more meandering tour!