Sorted And Sort of . . .

By Marie Arana and Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 23, 2006

We are two book people -- she, the editor of Book World; he, The Post's book critic -- who agree on many marital matters but almost totally disagree on the most important thing of all: how to arrange our books.

She insists hers is a simple (he says simple-minded) system. It is an approximate equivalent of that great old game 52 Pickup: Throw the cards in the air and, wherever they land, deal with it. She flings her books onto the shelves in her office with, as football coaches like to say, reckless abandon -- Russian next to Spanish, Amy Tan next to Dickens, Kafka next to Germaine Greer -- and somehow they land in a pattern that makes perfect sense to her but to anyone else is an unfathomable mystery.

He has this quaint idea: He'd like to be able to find his books when he wants them. So he has devised this simple (she says simple-minded) system: nonfiction upstairs, fiction downstairs, and, in his office -- which is on the opposite side of the house from hers -- biographies are arranged alphabetically by subject, and the rest is organized by category: history, lit crit, sports, travel. . . . Sensible, don't you think?

Their books are kept separate, even in the dining room -- yes, the dining room! -- where his collection of fiction is arranged tidily, alphabetically and, if he doesn't mind saying so, quite handsomely. He can go there and instantly put his hands on a book by Ellen Glasgow or Bernard Malamud, and so can she, though she'd never admit it. On the other hand, if he ventures into terra incognita -- her office -- he is as lost as if he were crossing the ocean on a raft without a Google Map. Before long, he'll give up and leave. (And that's the point, says she.)

Yet, believe it or not, there is neutral ground. In the living room are two relatively small cases that hold the books this odd couple treasures most. On his side are works by Faulkner, Welty, Peter Taylor, John P. Marquand, Ring Lardner. On her side: Cervantes, Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Vladimir Voinovich, Stanley Elkin. In the middle is a piano on which she plays Chopin, Mozart and Rachmaninoff. Close by, a stereo on which he plays Fats Waller, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Ain't love grand?

Marie Arana is the author of three books, among them the memoir "American Chica" and a forthcoming novel, "Cellophane." Jonathan Yardley is the author of six, the most recent of which is "Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley."

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