'The final time they made love, seven months before she killed herself and he married someone else, the Gypsy girl asked my grandfather how he arranged his books.
Where do you keep your books? she asked.
In my room.
Where in your room?
How are your books arranged?
Why do you care?
Because I want to know.
How do you arrange your books? she asked as they lay naked on a bed of pebbles and hard soil.
I told you, they’re in my bedroom on shelves.
I wonder if you can imagine your life without me.
Sure I can imagine it, but I don’t like to.
It’s not pleasant, is it?
Why are you doing this?
It was just something I was wondering.
Your books are arranged by the color of their spines, she said. How stupid.'
– Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
(Right. I think I may have started this book but it didn't grab me and I never finished it. The quote I found was a comment from a Design Observer post about arranging books by colour. The quote wasn't complete (nor is mine) so I googled it and found it all on a blog called Mapping the Marvellous. I love the extracts and may have to revisit the book. Or the film, if there is one.)
'She knew this type very well – the vague aspirations, the mental disorder, the familiarity with the outside of books…'
E.M. Forster, Howards End
(As quoted in Starter for Ten by David Nicolls. I haven't read either of them but have seen both films.)
Reading books used to be one my greatest joys but recently I've just not been able to concentrate. Should I blame the internet, lack of time, the stress of modern living, not being able to open a paperback on the overcrowded commuter train? The thing is, most of the books I have left to read (about 50 out of 600 in my collection) are large and heavy hardbacks. I tried taking The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross's history of twentieth century music, to read on the train every day, but it's a bulky 640 page book which I could barely find room to open on public transport during rush hour, and now hold it responsible for my dodgy shoulder. I never got past page 19. In case you're wondering, no, I'm still not getting a Kindle, but the thought has crossed my mind. I still love owning books and the feel of them, the smell of them (new or secondhand ones).
And I love seeing rows of books on shelves. Mine are all over the place, in different rooms, piles and stacks of them. One of my main pleasures of potentially buying a flat will be to see all my books in one place (Geoff Dyer wrote an amusing essay about this phenomenon in his collection, Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures, 1984-98; there's also Georges Perec's Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books); something I've never seen before but always fantasied about. I really don't know what 's wrong with me, but the first thing I do when viewing a property is look at the owner's book collection on the shelves. Most people don't really have books nowadays but one flat I looked at had many of the books I also own, so of course I thought this is the flat for me, even though the second bedroom was the size of a rabbit hutch.
But how to organise them? Alphabetically? Too dull and obvious (and difficult – every new A author involves reorganising the entire collection again). Genre? Too complicated. The latest trend in charity shops, particularly FARA I've noticed, is to arrange their books like their clothes, by colour. At first I thought this idea ludicrous and, well, I still do, but then I read an interesting article in the Design Observer, called, erm, Arranging Books by Color. At first the idea seems so random, so nonsensical, as to be dismissed immediately. But is there a better idea? If you're aesthetically inclined, the colour coded look is quite pleasing to the eye, even though different size books make it look clumsy. The Design Observer article mentions other, slightly more pretentious reasons, such as unrelated books (except for colour of spine) provoking ideas and relationships between each other. But come to think of it, ordering alphabetically provokes pretty random associations too, even if it does have the added bonus of actually being able to find what you're looking for. Though the joy for a flaneur like myself is to find what I'm not looking for whilst not finding what I am looking for. Which is what happens when I look for a CD.
I do like to reorganise my CD collection (over 1,000) every once in a while, sometimes for similar reasons to the character in High Fidelity (despair, frustration, relaxation). In the film version, John Cusack reorganises his records autobiographically (the order he bought them; an awesome task of memory judging by the hundreds of records he has). I don't arrange my CDs by any order at all really, loosely by genre but mainly which ones I like best at the top and which ones I like least at the bottom (that's practical arranging). CDs, being all the same size, look good (or bad, depending on your point of view) which ever way you arrange them. As do records, but my records are in no order at all, perhaps because I don't have that many of them (approx. 250) so they don't really need arranging. My records are currently just in boxes. My dream is to have them on shelves, with spines showing. The only problem with this method is it's almost impossible to read what's on the spines, the text being so small. Still, it's a moot point, they'll look great anyway.
Previously on Barnflakes:
Infographic of my music collection