Posted by: patti | December 6, 2008

Unexpected Synchronicity

When we unpacked our thousands of books in September, we didn’t alphabetize them on the shelves — we didn’t put them in any order at all.  We needed the boxes out of here, we needed the books off the floor, and we just arranged the books as neatly as possible.  We figured we’d make it a rainy day project, like we’ve done in the past, but we’re still undecided as to how to organize.  In other incarnations of this library, we’ve tried strict alphabetical order by author’s last name, ignoring genre (his preference), and we’ve tried alphabetical by author’s name within genre (my preference).

We’re a librarian (slash taxonomist slash poet)  and a puzzle editor (slash novelist slash yoga teacher slash . . .) so it’s not exactly surprising that we’d each have strong opinions on the “right” way to organize our books.  I suspect that we’re on our way to a his-and-hers solution, but we’ll see.

Our seven floor-almost-to-ceiling bookcases are barely enough to hold all the books (and we also have smaller bookcases just for my dictionaries and the cookbooks).  Because the books went right from box to shelf with no system, they are sort of arranged by size.  The mass markets are piled in two rows in some spots to maximize shelf space; there are whole shelves that have just hardcovers, some with just trade paperbacks.  Each box was labeled with a letter range that was optimistic at best:  the books started out in order by author, but the boxes had to be filled.  So Pynchon rode with Atwood and Auster, and Davies visited with Trevor and Tuchman, while Gaiman and Merton got to know each other.

And these unlikely pairings continue on the shelves, and I confess I’m starting to really like it.  Granted, it takes longer to find a specific book I am looking for, but browsing for a book is now a lot like putting the iPod on shuffle:  the juxtapositions are startling and serendipitous patterns often emerge.  (The psychic powers of my iPod’s shuffle is a whole other blog post.)  And each time one of us finishes a book, it gets returned wherever there’s an opening, so the shuffle continues.

Some examples.  Midnight’s Children is next to The Children of Dynmouth, The Ghost Writer next to The Phantom Tollbooth, Bagombo Snuff Box between Music for Torching and Memoir from Antproof Case.  It’s not just word association waiting to be discovered on the shelves, either:  It feels simply right to me that Maile Meloy’s delightful novel-in-stories, Liars and Saints, would nestle between Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy and Alice McDermott’s devastating That Night.  It makes me giggle to see Christopher Hitchens snuggled between Dorothy Day and Northrup Frye — I am pretty sure he is squirming.  There’s one slim volume of T.S. Eliot hiding within a row of John Banville novels: yes.

And now I’m looking back at what the book shuffle has given me to read since we’ve moved, and I’m even more convinced that I don’t want to organize the books, at least, not yet.  I’m still teasing it out, but there seems to be a thread tying book to book.  Of course, I selected each book myself, and my mood these past three months could be that thread.

But, oh, I so like the idea of being able to let go of a rigid structure.  The idea of being the type of person who is so unconcerned with order that her books are every-and-any-which way, waiting to be discovered.  I’m not that person, of course.  But maybe for a few more months, I’ll pretend I am, and let the universe deliver up my books.



  1. Great case for no structure!
    Things that make me go hmmmm….

  2. You have made me so happy.

  3. holy crap… you guys are complete nerds or i’m a dumbass for not knowing any of those books and why that’s funny/feels right… I’m going with little from column a, little from column b…

  4. It really has never occurred to me to organize/structure my bookshelf… I generally try to have books standing tall but sometimes i just stack on sides if one has fallen over.

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