People Of The Bookshelf

<p>Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images</p>
Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

By Geraldine BrooksOctober 11, 2012

Alpha by subject ... or by dinner party seating rules? Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks on a shelving obsession.

I was expecting my sister and her husband for dinner, but she arrived solo.
“I didn’t feel like bringing him. We just had a big fight,” she said.
“What about?” I asked.
“Alphabetising our bookshelves.”
<p>Courtesy Penguin</p>For most couples, this would be thin gruel for a contretemps. But my sister is a bibliophile and married a man of similar passions. They had just completed a house renovation, a feature of which was a magnificent bookshelf that spanned two floors. All had gone well as they placed their novels, histories, memoirs. But schism had arisen over the biographies. She wanted to shelve them alpha by subject, on the grounds that she wouldn’t necessarily be able to recall the author’s name. (Since she is, herself, a biographer, this view seemed both pragmatic and un-self-aggrandising.) But that notion was anathema to her husband, who wanted to follow proper library practice. Heated words had been exchanged.
Courtesy Penguin
I too have a book-loving spouse, but fortunately he adheres to no rigid shelving doctrine. In fact, he prefers to ignore the shelves, piling books around him in tottering redoubts. When he can no longer move freely in his study or get out on his side of the bed without negotiating a mogul field of mounded volumes, he’s happy enough for me to gather the books up and arrange them as I like. If he wants a particular title, he just asks me where to find it. His indifference is fortunate, for my own philosophy is more dewy-eyed than Dewey decimal; more idiosyncratic than ISBN.
I start out conventionally enough, alpha by author. But while I take account of the first letter of the writer’s surname, I have other ambitions for my shelves that transcend the conveniences of mere alphabetical accuracy. 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 arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party. Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras.
Full piece at The Global Mail