Not Wanted on Voyage: Further Perils of Categorisation

Tuesday 10 April 2007

After reading about Elizabeth Jolley’s death, I went to my shelves to take another look through some of her books, and couldn’t find them. The organisation of my books had been hasty and haphazard since unpacking them last year, when they finally arrived in my London flat a little over a year after I left Melbourne. Besides the confusion on the bookshelves, an unknown number of books remained squirrelled away in a tower of unexplored boxes stacked in the hallway.
A month ago on Sarsaparilla, Sophie wrote about the complications of trying to organise her bookshelves for the first time after moving house. I was unable to comment at the time, as I was preoccupied with moving house myself, but was very interested to read what others had to say about bringing some order to their bookpiles, to see what I could learn. However, none of the solutions that worked for other people offered a viable alternative to the method I have adopted in the last few years. What’s more, Sophie’s question about whether she was ghettoising the Australian books in her library went largely unanswered.
I used to prefer straight alphabetisation by author, without further categorisation, to avoid the problem of overlapping and conflicting categories that so many others have mentioned. This, however, led to two problems which I found sufficiently annoying to cause me to abandon the system altogether. Both of these problems were consequences of the logical rigidity demanded by this system.
Firstly, the alphabet would dictate that books be placed on shelves too small to fit them, forcing them to be shelved perpendicularly or out of sequence on a more generously sized shelf. This is a particular problem for people with bookshelves of a fixed height, such as those older bookcases designed for a collection of Penguins and the Everyman Library, ill equipped to accommodate the influx of remaindered titles from American publishers. The problem is especially vexing when an outsize book is orphaned from companion volumes by the same author (see fig. 1).

Figure 1: Published titles by the same author can vary widely in size, as demonstrated here by Charles Olson’s Maximus and Causal Mythology. The Kit Kat is included for scale.
The second problem is that alphabetical order disregards the location of the most frequently consulted books where they are most readily accessible, being as likely to happen as not (see fig. 2). Woe betide the Walter Abish scholar of short stature with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a love of alphabetisation; likewise lament the plus-sized Louis Zukofsky buff with a need for order.

Figure 2: Predicted location of the most frequently consulted books in a collection (Stephen Potter, Ezra Pound) sorted alphabetically by author in a six-shelf bookcase one metre wide, or multiples thereof.
In the end, I abandoned any pretense of an objective, consistent system and grouped books together by the regularity with which I consult them. Or would like to think I consult them, at any rate. Basically, the position of a book on my shelves is a rough measure of the esteem in which I currently hold it.
Because my interests focus upon modernists and postmodernists, the middle shelves are given over to books by or about Ezra Pound – sheer numbers make this the default point of origin. Everything else radiates out from this central plank: Wyndham Lewis on a shelf immediately above or below, through Pound’s contemporaries and heirs to Charles Olson, and from there on to the postmodernists. John Cage, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Kathy Acker form a loose alliance of convenience on the upper and lower shelves.
Stray individuals are slotted in to fit available space, grouped by subjective affinities. Laurence Sterne, Sei Sh┼Źnagon, Velimir Khlebnikov and Konrad Bayer all share favourable placement thanks to their exploration of the nature of writing. Banished to the least accessible heights and depths are the occasional Dickens and Rushdie, ancient Romans, renaissance Italians, and a surprisingly large number (more than two!) of French existentialists and surrealists.
For what it’s worth, the Australians were always mixed in with everybody else as though they had every right to belong there. This was partly to uphold the noble idea of a global village, but more honestly to hide my suspicion that the Australian section would look embarrassingly small by comparison. In turn, this would have goaded me into buying a number of books by Australian authors I could never bring myself to read.
So, after all the boxes were finally unpacked, on which shelf did I end up putting those Elizabeth Jolley novels? Nowhere, as it turned out. Jolley wasn’t there. Or rather, she had been relegated to the books left in storage in Melbourne. This may have been an accident or oversight, but seeing as all my most important books are over here, and that I hadn’t missed her until now, it looks like I made a conscious decision to leave her books behind.
Jolley is by no means alone. Now that I rack my brains to think what else is missing, I realise my library lacks some of the less helpful books about Pound, still more French existentialists, plenty of remaindered Viragos (don’t we all have those hidden somewhere?), and Australians. Peter Carey and Andrew McGahan didn’t make the cut, for instance. Patrick White did, but this seems to be more out of guilt than enthusiasm.
As a pack rat by nature, I probably knew in the back of my mind as I was marking the boxes that I would regret the decision sooner or later, but why did I make these particular choices at the time? My guess is that I had created a virtual shelf in my head, one further remove from the epicentre of Pound, Stein, Joyce et al, whose books were deemed excessive to travel and were placed in a storage crate. The distance to that last shelf is a little too great, and now I regret my mistake of banishing at least Miss Peabody’s Inheritance to the Big Shelf Down Under.
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)