And then, of course, soon enough, not.
I recently went hunting for my copy of Lydia Davis’s “Essays One,” a collection of nonfiction that revealed itself stuffed sideways on a shelf where the works of Philip Roth and Marilynne Robinson first took up residence. That would’ve been an unthinkable genre incursion when I’d first moved in, and the search itself revealed more shelving indignities. Locating Davis meant scanning through books that are no longer so much shelved as much as piled in a sedimentary manner throughout the office. Biographies are now cheek-to-jowl with memoirs and short-story collections. Oversize graphic novels rest pell-mell on top of the neatly shelved, cooperatively sized trade paperbacks. I am forever doomed to be perched on a shelving spectrum well away from Marie Kondo and distressingly close to the Collyer brothers.
I could blame covid. But though the pandemic mostly kept me out of bookstores, it didn’t keep me from online ordering or occasional Goodwill runs — which means I have books that still haven’t been removed from their plastic wrappers and a copy of “Gödel, Escher, Bach” that is probably destined to haunt me, unread, for years. Assuming I could ever find it. Memes about books you own but will never read spoke to me like never before; well-manicured shelfies and Zoom rooms delivered occasional stings of shame.
The late French essayist and novelist Georges Perec understood the anxiety of shelving. In his 1978 essay “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books,” the title work of a newly issued collection, Perec’s discussion of the many schemes for handling your personal library only shows how utterly impossible the task is. You could, for instance, agree only to keep 361 books in your library — buy one book, get rid of one. But then, he writes, you’d have to decide what a “book” is. Is a three-volume series one book or three? Maybe it’s better to stick with 361 authors instead of books. But then some books are anonymous, and some books don’t make sense without others in the same genre, and . . .
Perec’s essay is somewhat tongue-in-cheek — he was an Oulipian, a tribe of literary gamesmen who found creativity in extreme restraint. (He’s probably most famous for his 1969 novel, translated into English as “A Void,” in which he avoided using the letter E.) But however deep the joke runs, he knew he was writing about a legitimate crisis — not so much one of shelving as of personal identity. How much mess will we accept in our lives? How much order? Shelving, he notes, exemplifies “two tensions, one which sets a premium on letting things be, on a good-natured anarchy, the other that exalts the virtues of the tabula rasa, the cold efficiency of the great arranging, one always ends by trying to set one’s books in order.”
Perec runs through a number of ways to address that good-natured anarchy. We can categorize books alphabetically, that old standby, but also by continent, color, publication date, genre and more. But all methods, he insists, are doomed to failure. That’s partly because any one book has so many different ways to be uncooperative. Sometimes a book rebels via size. (Where do I put Chris Ware’s “Building Stories,” published in a board-game-size box?) And increasingly, shelving by genre is a headache (Where does the autofiction go? Or genre-blurring novels like Victor LaValle’s “The Changeling”?).
And, of course, books move, drifting from living room to office to the floor as we use them. In truth, the only library that can truly satisfy our sense of order is one you never touch. And there’s a market for that: The Strand bookstore in New York will sell books by the foot for people who want bespoke-looking shelves without going through the rigmarole of choosing (and presumably reading) a book. (You can choose by color, style or subject.) Books do furnish a room, as the English novelist Anthony Powell put it, but a living library is determined to look like a couch the cat scratches.
“My problem with classifications is that they don’t last; hardly have I finished putting things into an order before that order is obsolete,” Perec writes elsewhere in “Arranging.” “The arrangements I end up with are temporary and vague, and hardly any more effective than the original anarchy.”
I had a hard time finding that Davis book, and though there were things to lament during the search, there were also things to discover: the books I fondly remember, the ones I’m wondering why I’m still hanging on to, the ones I recall having gotten rid of and now wish I had on hand. (Or maybe I still have them around, somewhere . . .). Since May, I’ve been doing writing consultations over Zoom through a public library, which means exposing my unruly shelves to public scrutiny. I know everybody is too polite to say anything about it. But if somebody did, I’ll just tell them what Perec knew all along — a neat library is a dead one, and I’ll accept a little chaos as proof of my living.
Mark Athitakis, is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”