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Old 30th Aug 2004, 15:10   #1
John Self
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Default 4. Shelving Plans

Yesterday, when I was at my parents’ house doing the dutiful-son thing, my father hollered down at me from the loft: “There’s two boxes of your books here!” Two boxes? Two words, I thought: Im possible. I knew this because every time I had been to see my parents for the last several months, they had spat back old books of mine at me like a woodchipper. I had cleared out the last of them, for sure, several weeks back, subsumed them into my own shelves or chucked them straight in their recycling bin or, for the sufficiently respectable ones, given them to the charity shop.

But I went up the ladder and there they were: two medium sized cardboard boxes packed to the last airless inch – like a Krypton Factor challenge – with paperback books. Old Terry Pratchetts I’d grown out of. Tasty classics I hadn’t yet grown into. Paper-and-ink manifestations of the maxim Hope Springs Eternal that I never had read, never would, and couldn’t for the life of me fathom why I’d bought: Gerald Lynch’s Troutstream, anyone? And as these books hadn’t brushed up against my life for – what? – ten years or so, it was the work of a moment to dismiss them all into the recycler. In a few months’ time you could be wiping your arse with them, in which case mind the staples in the flyleaf of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing.

Though even then you will possibly be treating them with more respect than I did. For books, surely, are to be displayed, seen, aired, read and circulated. Like living things, as I found out, without fresh air and attention they atrophy and die. But then if they had been books I really loved in the first place, they would never have ended up in such deep storage. But who has enough room to display them all? Not me: and as I found out recently, I have well over 50 books at home that I have bought but never read on open shelves, never mind the ones that are hidden away. This list of what we might call Books Waiting To Be Read is a source of stress for any sane reader. Part of the problem is that it is even more pleasurable to acquire new books than it is to read them, so the tendency is for these lists to increase and not to decline. And the knowledge that the collection of books can only get bigger is an oppressive thought. Just as it’s depressing to realize that however carefully you spend your money through a particular salary month, the best you can hope for is to arrest the decline of your bank balance: it won’t actually go up again until you get paid. Similarly the part of me that wishes for more space and fewer books to store must hope for me not to discover any new books I like enough to keep, a vile conflict with the rest of me that wants constantly to be discovering the next universal pleasure-giver like Martin Amis or Kurt Vonnegut or William Boyd.

Obviously, like many booklovers, I have insufficient shelf space for all my books, so only the favoured few (hundred) are on display at any one time: the Premier League. The First and Second Division are in the drawers of my desk and bedside tables (which are just wide enough to hold "B" format paperbacks stacked spine-up), and so on down until you get to the Vauxhall Conference books which are in boxes under the stairs.

The books on the shelves are a source of pride and pleasure: the kind of books which give delight in the very sight of their spines. The books in the drawers could conceivably one day be (or perhaps in the past were) on the shelves but their time is not now. They could still be read or re-read at any time. The books under the stairs are those which will probably never be read again, but which sentiment prevents me from despatching to the charity shop or second hand bookstore (possibly they were presents, although if the donor does come back one day and ask after the book they bought me, the prospect of seeing me scrabble about in dusty storage cartons with a torch may well indicate that bridges should have been burned already).

Occasionally, tragically, a book can pass through all three stages - and on to the outside world - without ever being read. I confess that this was the fate of my C.S. Lewis Cosmic Trilogy. It took up too much space on the shelf which could accommodate three or so slimmer, newer books; it didn't fit the desk drawers properly as it was "A" format; and when I started to feel guilty at the sight of its winking (and increasingly concave through a sort of biblioarthritis of disuse) spine every time I opened the boxes, I knew it was time for us to go our separate ways. Into the bag with the rest of that summer's crop. But my plan backfired: three years on it's still there. The charity shop can't shift it. Season after season it ping-pongs back and forth between Fiction, Religion and SF. The price falls like a half life. Once it gets down to 99p, I just know I'm going to have to buy it back.

Now back to the shelves. How do we arrange books on them? A friend of mine has them by colour of spine, which is (ahum) novel. In my anally retentive way I do have a system, but I will defer to Anne Fadiman for her own explanation, in her excellent book Ex Libris, where she describes “marrying libraries” when she and her husband brought their book collections together in the same house:

Quote:
We ran into trouble, however, when I announced my plan to arrange English literature chronologically but American literature alphabetically by author. ... The Victorians belonged together; separating them would be like breaking up a family. A particularly bad moment occurred while he was in the process of transferring my Shakespeare collection from one bookcase to another and I called out, "Be sure to keep the plays in chronological order!"

"You mean we're going to be chronological within each author?" he gasped. "But no-one even knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote his plays!"

"Well," I blustered, "we know he wrote Romeo and Juliet before The Tempest. I'd like to see that reflected on our shelves."

George says that was one of the few times her seriously contemplated divorce.
I'm on her side. Although purely alphabetical regardless of age or nationality, I do like titles to be chronological within each author. It's about seeing their development, or something. Dammit, it just makes sense! This is one of my few quibbles with Waterstone's, who catalogue titles alphabetically within each author; so for Martin Amis Money comes before The Rachel Papers, and Powell's Dance to the Music of Time dodecalogy (is that even a word?) is all out of order. Philistines! Although I’ll accept that if you’re looking for a specific one of, say, P.G. Wodehouse’s 90-odd books then their system has its advantages. (Is this a good time to mention the branch of Waterstone’s in my home city – admittedly when it was still a Dillons – that used to arrange biographies by author?)

But all this doesn’t deal with the problem of how to store all our books, er, humanely. Fortunately, I have scoured the lands and come up with the answer, care of William Gladstone (yes that one). In 1898 a posthumous pamphlet was published by him entitled On Books and the Housing of Them. It seems that WG was an insatiable buyer and hoarder of books, and understood very well that good storage was required to "prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded some centuries hence into the surrounding waters by the exorbitant dimensions of their own libraries." (Chance would be a fine thing these days, where basic literacy is universal but reading is a minority sport.) He then goes into extremely long-winded detail on the precise best sort of shelving arrangements for books, a brief example of which will prove that, as Anne Fadiman says in Ex Libris (oh all right, it was her who scoured the lands for it), "he may have been the only man in history to have written a long-winded twenty-nine page book":

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First, the shelves must, as a rule, be fixed; secondly, the cases, or a large part of them, should have their side against the wall, and thus, projecting into the room for a convenient distance, they should be of twice the depth needed for a single line of books, and should hold two lines, facing each way. ... [The bookshelves] should each have attached to them what I rudely term an endpiece (for want of a better name), that is, a shallow and extremely light adhering bookcase (light by the reason of the shortness of the shelves) which both increases the accommodation, and makes one side short as well as the two long ones of the parallelopiped to present simply a face of books with the lines of the shelf, like threads, running between the rows.
Suddenly I've gone right off books. Maybe that was his tactic.
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Old 30th Aug 2004, 18:04   #2
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Well considering I have now reached crisis point in book storage (I don't have the room for any more bookcases) I can see a point where all the books on my bookshelves at my Mum's house - I left approx. 30' of books at home when I went to University, and have been busily buying books ever since - will have to be boxed up and put into my loft, until I can afford a larger house (they will be good sturdy plastic boxes though)

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Old 31st Aug 2004, 10:47   #3
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A good friend of mine used to live on the top floor of a block of council flats in one of those massive penthouse-if-only-that-phrase-were-not-ridiculous-considering-the-neighbours type apartments. His penchant was political history (at one point he was the leader of Cambridge City Council) and American Crime. And he had thousands of books. Thousands. Being a bachelor he could please himself re storage and he did. Every single wall was covered in books, usually scaffolding boards supported by bricks.

It was a brilliant place to go browsing and easily the mosy uncompromising collection/display I've ever witnessed outside a bookshop. And he still had the damn things in boxes in other rooms. So, I guess, it's like road transport policy: build more and they fill up.
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 11:20   #4
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Build more, and they fill up
Don't I know it. We have about 5000 books. One wall of room A (books double-banked on wide shelves). Half a wall of room B. Whole of one side of corridor C. Whole of understairs cupboard D. Whole of another understairs cupboard E. Set of shelves and several boxes on floor of room F. Whole of contents of two three-drawer bedside tables. A vast set of shelves in room G. A smaller set of shelves in room H. A modest pile awaiting reading on camphorwood chest.

Categorisation:

One bookcase for collectibles, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, art books, largely arranged by size.

One bookcase divided unequally between SF, Mainstream and Beryl's favourites [each alphabetic by author (approx chronological within author)]. This is the largest and most often accessed bookcase, and shares the room with some hundreds of movies on VHS on separate shelves.

One corridor for crime and spy fiction. One bookcase for historical fiction. One set of shelves for manuals and technical books. Most of the boxes and understairs areas are theoretically on their way to charity shops and car boot sales, but they never get there and are constantly rummaged for books we can't find elsewhere.

And, to relieve the pressure, we're about to shelve another room.
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 11:49   #5
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Couldn't guess how many books but they are all 'out' on view, bar a few second-hand duplicates of Narnia that I'm amassing for each of the four offspring.
The study holds three ten-foot shelves plus another six-foot double shelved case and a tall multi-shelved pine case which is double filled - accessible from both sides. The study holds blended fiction from mine and Mr. Col's ancient past, several shelves of theology, all the poetry, plays (including Shakespeare) and all of the Picadors I bought in the '80's. It also holds all my Latin and French texts, a stack of vampire fiction, sci-fi and Ricardian fiction, and 60 or so black-spined Penguins I stocked up on at university.

Under the stairs is a long twin-shelved case with more recent modern fiction and hefty hardbacks on classical music and things like Alistair Cooke's America.

In the living room a five shelved case in the corner is more hardback coffee table stuff and mostly modern fiction. Plus a few more Latin bits and Palimpular-green-spined old Penguin classics from the fifties.

Upstairs, five tall Ikea Billy-bookcases full of children's books and a small case of more vampire and esoteric fiction (mine). And the pile by the bed.

And the reference books in the dining room.

It sounds a mess. It's mostly grouped by author, but also by the period of life at which I bought it. There's a foot of Steinbeck/Iris Murdoch/Alan Paton in the living room I've never touched in fifteen years and Mr. Col can't even remember buying, let alone reading.

(We did chuck out a pile of embarrassing theology the other day, and my Jilly Cooper's and Virginia Andrews with some Jean Plaidy's.)

My problem is what's going to happen to them all once I snuff it, the children's lit in particular.
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 12:01   #6
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Originally Posted by Colyngbourne
It's mostly grouped by author, but also by the period of life at which I bought it.
A nice idea, which i think nick Hornby writes about in one of his more lucid moments when describing the organisation of a record collection in High Fidelity - a biographical organisation. I'm not sure I could do it, simply not knowing when I bought most of my books. I wonder what it could tell you about the various periods of life in question.

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embarrassing theology
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 12:10   #7
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Colyngbourne wrote:
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embarrassing theology
Stuff that one bought in one's younger days that has dated somewhat, or of a theological perspective from which one has moved on...
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 12:16   #8
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I would be quite interested in this, though I appreciate it is veering wildly off topic.

Without giving away your own current position, Col, what are the ideas that have 'dated somewhat'? Just a couple of examples would do, it just seems like an interesting topic. As a non church goer I'm surprised (though thinking about it, I shouldn't be) that there are trends in theological thought.
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 13:32   #9
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I don't know exactly what might be out of fashion, but the old '60's Honest to God arguments have probably moved on, as too the precise nature of 'liberation theology' of the late seventies/early eighties. Reports become outdated, trends in orthodox spirituality and Desert Fathers mysticism appear due to Rowan Williams.
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 13:46   #10
John Self
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...None of which, I am afraid, means anything at all to me.
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