Of Arranging Books there is no End

[First in a series of posts about books, shelves, and — wait for it — bookshelves. Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking my Library” is a model of the form, and Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is more recent.]

I got a stack of books for my ninth birthday. They were the types of books that kids read in the 1980s: Gordon Korman’s Macdonald Hall series; Roald Dahl’s Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar; Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. Three decades later, I remember that stack being about four feet high, but it was probably shorter. I took them to my room and arranged them, three separate times, on shelves: first by author, then by size, then by the order I would read them. I experimented with different shelving regimens everywhere in my room: alphabetically by author; by genre (science books here, Archie digests there); by size; and by series.

That was the beginning, I think, of a series of book-arrangements I’ve since indulged at the key transitions in my life: my first dorm room, first apartment, and first house; my first library carrel, first cubicle, and first office. On shelves from Winnipeg to Vancouver to Montreal to Cambridge to Toronto to Calgary. And some books have made all five of those journeys with me.

Everything changed in first-year university. I bought my first Norton Anthology, and learned about literary chronologies: Wordsworth after Pope, Dickens before Woolf, and so on. My friends and I scoured remainder piles for Oxford World’s Classics and Penguin Classics — assembling our versions of the Platonic ideal we envied, the Penguin Classics full set (1,082 books for a mere $13,413). In my first office at the University of Calgary, I set up the chronological scheme I use today: from classical to biblical to English (Anglo-Saxon to contemporary); poetry here and drama there. (Novels are relegated to home.)

My shelves hold the records of my history, like my battered Macbeth from high school — but also my future ambitions: to read all the way through a reasonably comprehensive set of representative authors and genres from every period of history, an accordion-like Norton Anthology in bookshelf form.

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