Sunday Salon: On philosophies of shelving

When I was a child (an only child, I hasten to add, and self-sustaining in my amusements), my two favorites activities were playing schoolteacher to my stuffed animals (I kept meticulous records of their grades, and let me tell you, Monkey and Almond did not benefit from grade inflation) and cataloging my books.  I thought of a hundred ways to classify my library, but I could never wrap my mind around the whole project.

Today, whenever I move with my considerably vaster library (probably around 2500 books, which is apparently 500 less than Samuel Pepys kept at any one time), my first action in a new house is to put books on the shelves.  A home doesn't feel like it is mine until there are books everywhere.  And then I begin anticipating the day when I can organize the shelves into some semblance of order.  I actually put off this task, you understand, so that I can enjoy the anticipation a bit longer.  Sometimes I save it for a really horrible day.

I have begun thinking about philosophies of shelving again after reading Charles-Adam Foster-Simard's thoughtful piece on the subject in The Millions.  Foster-Simard has adopted an intuitive structure for his library - a library of thematic associations ("all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style") that sometimes verges on the romantic:

Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
My new house in Nova Scotia, which I moved into about a year ago, has more space than anywhere I have ever lived, so I have adopted a new shelving system.  First, I now have an office, which means I can banish all work-related, stress-inducing books to that space.  Thank God. For a long time I haven't been able to keep any work books in my bedroom, because they will give me insomnia. So, that is the first cut - work vs. pleasure.

The second is between read and unread books.  My smaller (blush) collection of unread books goes in the basement and ground floor.  The theory is this: they are on the ground floor so that when guests see the collection there, and ask about the books, I will actually have something to say about them.  The relegation of the rest of the read collection to the basement room (a lovely room in its own right, I hasten to say, lest you have visions of my poor books moldering away in forgotten dampness) is that there I can find them whenever I need them, but they don't look me in the eye every day.  It is the unread books that I need to confront constantly, if I am ever to stand a chance of opening them.

So the unread library consumes all the space on the second and third floors - two bedrooms, an office, and a full, dedicated library.

The third layer of classification is between fiction and non-fiction.  Non-fiction occupies the master suite on the third floor of the house, since having it before me every night and morning is the only way I will ever remember to read it.  It is further subdivided roughly by genre and theme (biographies and memoirs, science writing, sports, media, literature, etc.).  The fiction on the second floor, by contrast, is organized strictly by author.  Why?  This makes it easy to find a volume when I want it.  And I have to admit I adore the incongruous neighbors this system creates.

So - how do you arrange your shelves?  Do you ever find yourself thinking about shelving options in - dare I say - moral(izing) terms?

P.S. Did I mention that I'm unexpectedly in Hawai'i for five weeks?  Read (and see) more about it here.  Or you could take a look at one of my posts from the last week or so.  I reviewed Make Way for Tomorrow and Jim the Boy, and gave my account of the first episodes of the last season of Deadwood.  I may also have touched on subjects as diverse as the International Catalogue of Superheroes, anarcho-dandyism, and the glorious I Write Like and Lone Star Statements time sucks.

4 Responses so far.

  1. Molly says:

    I love the floor to ceiling book shelves!

    I do not have nearly the collection of books - yet - but I do enjoy sorting them in a way that I can easily find what I am looking for. I tend to sort by loosely defined categories that I have created myself: YA books (some of which I might use in the classroom); British Literature (books that I teach as well as others); mystery/thrillers, travel memoirs, contemporary fiction, etc. Within each of those categories I sort alphabetically by author.

    Not terribly original. but it works well for me.

  2. A fellow Brit Lit teacher! I have to admit that the work/pleasure division is sometimes a little fuzzy - I have banished my whole drama collection to the office, but the novels I teach are still at home. It is a bit arbitrary...

  3. I love the library photo, and wanted to say that I could make myself very comfortable in that room :)

  4. Thanks, bibliophile by the sea (a name that also applies to me - in both Halifax and Hawai'i!). My favorite thing to do is to set myself up in that chair in the library with a big pot of tea, a pile of work, and some novels, and just read through a whole Sunday. The light is some of the best I get in my whole house, and out the window I can see families playing on the wide grassy area that runs down the middle of my street. Bliss.

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