“Both in my library at home and in my bookshops I have a hard time hewing to any strict philosophy of shelving. Shelving by chronology (Susan Sontag’s method) doesn’t always work for me. The modest Everyman edition of The Anglo Saxon Chronicles refuses to sit comfortably next to Leonard Baskin’s tall Beowulf, and exactly the same problem – incompatibility of size – crops up if one shelves alphabetically. Susan Sontag, on a visit when all my books were in the old ranch house, found that she couldn’t live even one night with the sloppiness of my shelving. She imposed a hasty chronologizing which held for some years and still holds, in the main.

Susan’s principles notwithstanding, I make free with chronologies when the books seem to demand it. My Sterne looks happier beside my Defoe than he looks next to his nearer contemporary Smollett, so Tristram Shandy sits next to Moll Flanders rather than Peregrine Pickle.

Despite a nearly infinite range of possibilities in the matter of book arrangement, I’ve noticed that most people who really love books find ways of shelving them which respect the books but clearly reflect their own personalities. The historian and scholar Robert Manson Myres had the most impeccably shelved library I have ever seen; he even had an alcove shelved in his Georgian apartment in Washington which held, precisely, his one-thousand-volume collection of the Everyman Library. The polymath Huntington Cairns, who had sixteen thousand books in a vast, smoky old apartment, in the same city, held to a rough subject arrangement, with no attempt being made to organize the books within a subject. He had 750 volumes on Plato and Aristotle alone, but was confident that, among them, he could find the book he needed when he required it.”

Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999)

The books on my shelves are definitely not in any chronological nor alphabetical order. And if Susan Sontag were to ever grace my home with her presence, I’m afraid she would certainly not be able to “….. live even one night with the sloppiness of my shelving.” :p

My books have a tendency of being placed together in the company of the ones they happened to have traveled together with on the same journey in arriving at my shelves. I thought this would make them feel at home much better, seeing that they are already acquainted with the ones sitting beside them. Hahah. Maybe that’s just a convenient excuse for someone who is good at acquiring but bad at arranging books.

Enough about me. What about you?
Do you think you are more of the Susan Sontag type, or perhaps you find yourself sharing the same sentiments as that of Hugh Walpole, below? πŸ˜‰

I believe it then to be quite simply true that books have their own personal feeling about their place on the shelves. They like to be close to suitable companions, and I remember once on coming into my library that I was persistently disturbed by my ‘Jane Eyre’. Going up to it, wondering what was the matter with it, restless because of it, I only after a morning’s uneasiness discovered that it had been placed next to my Jane Austens, and anyone who remembers how sharply Charlotte criticised Jane will understand why this would never do.

Hugh Walpole, These Diversions : Reading (1926)


6 thoughts on “Friday Feature : On The Company By Which Our Books Keep

  1. I’ve never particularly liked Sontag and this only gives me more reason not to. Chronological sorting drives me batty and I end up with chaos. Letter to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen would end up in the 1980s, so very very far from the early 19th Century books it is concerned with. I’m with Walpole: books should be sorted by topic, placing like with like. This can create some tensions – should my miltary history books on India be shelved with my general military books or with my histories of India? – but it all works out in the end, each book finding some friends and none looking lonely or out of place.


  2. I tend to shelve by category, pretty much keeping all of an author’s books together. We do have shelves in our family room where some of the “prettier” books reside, or the ones I think guest might enjoy flipping through.

    By the way, I tagged you in a post yesterday at my blog. See if you want to play along.


    1. I try to group them by subject matter too sometimes, and by publishers. That means, my Penguin editions of Hardy will likely to be sitting apart from my Vintage editions of Hardy. I like having the ‘prettier’ books displayed where it can be ‘admired’ by many too, but at the same time I am also concerned if this will actually mean exposing them to greater ‘risk’ of being damaged (if they are being flipped through once too often by visitors), or borrowed. :p
      Yes, I just read your post this morning and saw myself tagged. Would love to play along, but only thing is I probably won’t have much previous posts to choose from, seeing that I just started blogging 4 months ago. Still, will give it a go. πŸ˜‰


    1. I can just imagine how much time and effort it must have taken you. But I don’t think alphabetical order will work for me, though. Are your books sorted by authors first and then in alphabetical order? That might be a better idea, perhaps.


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