John Singer Sergeant, Man Reading
Art, Music, Books & Film


For a person who shelves his music by period by composer by form (yes, quartets come before sonatas), I am shockingly lax when it comes to books. I shelve mine on spatial principles. If there’s an opening on the shelf, I slide it in.

I did start out with an organizing scheme when I first moved to the apartment thirteen years ago. But I wasn’t very disciplined about sticking to it. At one point I realized that the only way I was ever going to manage to rearrange my books in some semblance of categorical or alphabetical order was to move again. And that wasn’t going to happen soon. From then on, it was all entropy.

Geraldine Brooks, in a piece she wrote on her shelving obsession (and which served as the impetus for this post), says, “It’s impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion.” I have no such compunction. I believe that when two people are forced to share the same small space for a long period of time they work out a mutually acceptable modus viviendi. Either that or one winds up killing the other.

As can be expected this spatial organizing principle results in some very odd company–Montaigne’s On Friendship somehow wound up next to John Dickie’s Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, though how better to cement a friendship than through shared meals? The system also yielded some serendipitous pairings that suggest a kinship that doesn’t really exist. Shalmon Rushdie’s Shame is shelved next to James Ellroy’s My Dark Places. Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. I could go on, but my credibility would suffer.

My system also means that I spend much more time looking for a book than I would if they were shelved by author or genre, but it is rarely time wasted. Scanning the titles as I search is a bit like rummaging though a box of old letters or photographs, an opportunity to recall the time I shared with these books. They are a motley collection of acquaintances. There are many storytellers and poets and entertainers. Teachers figure prominently, some more gifted than others but few pedantic. Mentors are rare but do make an appearance.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the heterogeneity of the collection. Most people’s libraries are similarly eclectic. But I was surprised. I really bought these books?

I will let my friends say whether I am an interesting person, but I certainly seem to be person of interests.  A lot of interests. Cryptography and photography. Animal intelligence, art criticism, and poetry between the wars. Vegetarian cooking and WWII, genetics and graphic design. Berlin and crime novels and Berlin crime novels. I was like a poor mish-mash of NYR personals. But like the creationist’s view of the fossil record, this depiction of a man of many interests emerges only when ignoring the chronological stratification of the findings. I never was interested in all of these things at the same time. Interests, like lovers, come and go. Some remain, indeed become lifelong companions, and others are never heard from again. Some seem a natural fit, an interest foreshadowed that was just waiting to be called forth. Others are like a borrowed coat.

I ran out of bookcase space a long time ago and had to commandeer the shelves in the pantry and kitchen and a cabinet or two elsewhere in the house, so my books are now distributed over seven distinct locations. This has created an organizing category on its own, a chronological one. Like artists and history, my book collection is divided into periods. Most of the books I brought with me to the apartment are still on the living room shelves I put them on when I unpacked, though not necessarily in the same place. Recent books I’ve acquired are stacked elsewhere, mostly in the bedroom and now on the ledge where I used to stack kindling for the kitchen fireplace. Books of the Middle Period are fittingly located between the two end points of the apartment. Interestingly enough, not many of the books in the first or middle colonies seem to have moved to new locations. The new ones, especially those I haven’t finished reading, do get shifted around somewhat and, like foraging ants returning to their nests, eventually wind up back on my bedroom table. Where they stay for a while before foraying out again to the kitchen. There never seems to be the right moment, or, rather, enough of the right moment, for some books.

Populated as they are with the textual expression of the interests of the person I was at the time I acquired them, these library spaces allow me a glimpse back into my history. Some of the earlier ones, luckily few in number, evidence a certain degree of pretension or insecurity. They contain books I bought because I wanted to be the kind of person who read them. Others, again few in number, testify to the enthusiasm of the first months of a romance in which you stop reading what you’ve been reading and start reading the books that he likes. Laden with biographical clues these “bookscapes” narrate a history that would be more difficult to hear in a more rational or deliberate system of organization. There may not be beauty in chaos, but there sure can be a story.


Image: John Singer Sergeant, Man Reading


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