how and why i shelve

I shelve my books; I don’t just put them on shelves. And I know that I’m somewhat unique among even scholars and book lovers, because I have seen plenty of English professors, avid reader friends, and writers who are happy with their disorganized bookshelves. But my books are organized, which I think speaks to my natural affinity towards librarianship and also to my bibliophilia.

The two big wooden shelves are fiction. All fiction, no matter whom it was written for, whether it’s speculative, realist, surrealist, science, fantasy. If it’s a story that was made up, it’s here. I love stories, and this is obviously the biggest part of my collection. I don’t distinguish between subgenres or audience because I think that tends to demean them, and there is merit in all types of fiction. It all just goes on these shelves, alphabetically according to last name. The shelves you can’t see because they are blocked by the chaise are filled with old magazines, piano and choral music, and tons of binders of my own writing, literary magazines, and photocopies of readings I’ve done for class, workshops, and more.

On the left bookshelf, the top shelf is all poetry, alphabetized by author again. Next come memoirs/essays/biographies, which I sort un-librarian-ly shelve by author’s last name, not by subject. Then come plays. Finally, there’s general nonfiction and books on writing and books. My last bookshelve, which sadly has to live in the hallway, has a shelf of DVDs, half a shelf of folklore and fairy tales, then some religious reference, art reference, and finally anthologies, alphabetized by editor. The bottom of that shelf has board games, zines, and the few physical CDs I still own. Finally, my desk has one shelf above it that holds cookbooks on the left and dictionaries and thesauri on the right.

I haven’t counted, but I estimate that I own somewhere around 350 books. Even these photos are old, as I have now accumulated more books that don’t fit on any of those four shelves and live on top of the stacks, which makes me crazy because that means they’re out of alphabetical order. Also, I have really old editions of some of the Little House books that live under my bed, since the boxed set was all that fit on the shelf. I don’t even want to tell you how many of those books I still haven’t read, or how many books I have on my Kindle, both read and unread. But for all the books I haven’t read, there are still a great many I have, and I’m proud.

I shelve books deliberately, rather than haphazardly, because I respect them. I scribble in them and dogear the pages because I love them. I keep them separated by genre because I want them to be in good company. I make their spines visible because I want them to know I know who they are.

Everyone who helped me pack the moving truck for Boston asked me why I didn’t just get rid of most of my books and get a Kindle. And now I have a Kindle, but it’s not the same, and I still use it primarily for PDF reading, plus a few NetGalley and library titles. I usually say that I like the smell and look and feel of books, that I like annotating, that authors can’t sign digital titles. That’s true, but those are minor reasons that don’t really tell why I (and probably other bibliophages) buy and keep books. Because if you just like the physical feel of books, you can use a library. If you really just need annotations, you can take notes in a journal, or you can use the notes feature on the Kindle. You can take a photograph with an author or have them sign a piece of paper. For me, I think, it comes down to two things: personal appearance and future children.

They say that now that social media is such a thing, personal branding and editing is becoming exceedingly more important, and I agree. We makeover and primp and tailor our online profiles so that they appear sufficiently sarcastic or quirky or popular or whatever persona it is we want to present. Even though I’m quite certain this doesn’t ever happen, I like to think that my bookshelf, should I invite someone into my apartment, will say a lot of really interesting things about my beliefs, my personal identity, my interests, and my pursuits. You could look at it and say that I’m a Democrat or socialist because of my refusal to categorize fiction any further by subgenre or audience and by the fact that all my anthologies go together regardless of what they anthologize. You can see I’m a scholar from the amount of dictionaries, reference books, and W.W. Norton titles. You can tell I love highbrow and lowbrow stuff from my DVD collection, and you can gauge my fascination with multiculturalism and its related issues from the vast kinds of folklore I collect. You can tell I am attracted to character studies from the types of essays I collect and the fact that I generally only have multiple titles from single authors if they are series or sequels. I don’t collect careers unless I really love the writer and know that I’ll continue to like their work. I go book by book, story by story. And often the books I buy are the ones that I think will require time and study to delve into, the books that I decide to read based on reading about them in other books or essays. You would also see that I love authors, that I love writing with authors, that I love making authors I know or authors I meet at events sign my books.

That’s always been my underlying reason. But yesterday I was sitting on the chaise, zoning out while reading (which to me is the mark of reading a good book, because it makes me think and ponder and compare and build) and thinking about how I will be back in Tucson soon, and I thought of what’s probably been another, more unconscious, driving force in my pursuit of owning all of literature: my parents. For one thing, in elementary school my house was characterized as “the one with the bookshelves,” and until I became more cognizant of how socioeconomics factor into education and intellectualism, I didn’t understand why that was so interesting to people I went to school with. But yeah, so the first thing is that whatever you see in your family you generally consider normal, and even though my parents scarcely buy books now, they clearly bought a lot in the past, because we really do have an enormous amount of bookshelves in the house, and my parents are always buying new ones. So of course I buy books. Although I wasn’t spoiled as a child, I don’t think my parents ever denied me blank paper to write on or paper with words already on it to read.

Now, even though there’s no reason to think about this when you are allergic to dating as I am, I think I am also trying to create a really wonderful life for the children I will someday have. Nothing, at least in books, was ever really off limits to me as a child, and yet not much was forced on me, either. So I could explore my parents’ bookshelves and look at the photographs of The Family of Man, figure sketches in old portfolios by both my mother and my father, my mom’s collection of vintage Golden Books, various editions of the Bible, Gilgamesh, and apocrypha that my father collects, Latin American poetry, and more. I don’t think I took as much advantage of them as I could have, but I think I’ve probably also just forgotten a lot of what I gleaned because it sublimated. Now, sometimes, I will buy a book only to find out that I could have borrowed it from my dad, and vice versa. My parents’ house is filled with books about nearly everything, and I think I’m trying to do the same and then some, both because I love so many different kinds of books, but also because a house full of bookshelves makes for a most excellent, curiousity-filled childhood. If I have kids, I want them to have that above all else.

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2 thoughts on “how and why i shelve

  1. This is a wonderful post that you have composed. I have a similar idea of just alphabetizing by author instead of by “genre” as people might expect. The only whim I indulge in for my fiction section is that all my classics are grouped together. Why? I’m not sure.

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