“Have you not heard the stories? Captain Barbossa and his crew of miscreants sail from the dreaded Isla de Muerta. It’s an island that cannot be found except by those who already know where it is.”
It is years ago now, but from memory it was Nico who was most appalled by my -admittedly quite appalling- book system. Now, after 18 months of working on two very large projects, the time has come to reorder the inventory. If I’ve got that correct and it was Nico, then let me just say strap in, Canada, because it’s about to get even worse. Now there are labels.
I announce my reorganisational intentions to my partner in the morning and he eyes me warily. We have so very many books. I maintain that it is not that we have too many books, but that our rented west London shithole is too small. Before you judge, try living in a ‘high book cost’ regime like Australia or, especially, New Zealand. We have play collections that I thought nothing of spending NZD $90 that would not even be eleven quid here. (Yes, I am aware that is how Depression-era grandmothers turn into hoarders but still… I’m not changing.)
My second, more idle, announcement is that I may photograph the experience and turn it into a blog post, because that’s kinda like what Sarah did. I share Sarah’s post with him via gtalk. He looks at it and eyes me off even more warily. “Yes but, even in this state, her house is quite a bit nicer than ours” he says.
“I don’t see how that’s relevant” I reply. “I’ve never pretended we live any better than we-”
“Quite a bit nicer.”
After promising not to show the internet just what kind of squalor we live in, I begin at 8am. And it’s awful. There were vague plans to go to the gym in the morning and I’m glad -more glad than usual- that they didn’t happen, because I haul hundreds of books upstairs to the home office, and haul hundreds back downstairs, where they were professionally heaped on the spare bed from when I spent all last weekend compiling the bibliography for Star.Ships.
My book ‘system’, such as it is, revolves around clumping titles together by theme or topic area -often one that only I can comprehend such as ‘grimoires on high rotation’ or ‘alternative history books that annoy me’. What this means is that it is very easy to find a book, but only if you know where it is… hence the Isla de Muerta reference at the top of this post. (Not that I need an excuse for a Pirates reference. There is also an actual ‘pirates’ section.)
Al Cummins and I discussed books, shelves and space (as you do) in this very Hell’s Kitchen bar the other week.
We both yearned to one day live somewhere that could house our respective book collections in a single room, arranged in an individual-specific way. Clearly, this is why he chose to live in NYC and I chose to live in London, which are known throughout the world for their domestic spaciousness.
Back to today. With the unneeded books from the previous projects, as well as generally low-rotation books, now piled precariously under the home office desk (actually a dining table we can’t remove from the room because the door is too small), I begin removing everything from the high rotation bookshelves downstairs, onto the bed. This is when my partner wisely decides to head to the high road, lest he get roped into book chores. “I’m just heading out for a bit. You want anything?”
“Bulleit” I say. “And only get the rye if they don’t have the normal.” It’s 11am. He was probably expecting me to say bagels.
This is why.
Then commenced the horrible sneezing fit that accompanies wiping down bookshelves. (Fucking incense!) The last time I did this, I remember thinking how I could possibly fit more Billy bookshelves into my house. Now I just think how I can possibly engineer a life where I never have to own a Billy bookshelf again.
What Al and I discussed in Hell’s Kitchen was how there is a peculiar formation of idea sequences that come from collating book collections… especially if they are titles you have already read. Not knowing the first thing about it, I imagine it is sort of like composing music… you put ideas next to each other, test how they move, how they sound in your head. Arrange your books in an appropriate sequence and you have yourself a thesis without going to the trouble of actually writing one. Which is good because at this point I am a little intoxicated.
I don’t get to the composing stage today because, somewhat superstitiously, I want the ideas to ‘settle’ into their new surrounds first. It’s actually extremely mentally taxing to dramatically reorder hundreds of titles across three rooms in two floors based on what ‘idea clumps’ you would like to reposition around over the coming winter, but my depraved little mind may have some inherent talent for it. When I was part of the launch team for Sydney’s Virgin Megastore back in the day, I sat on the floor of the DVD section while other team members would bring up box after box after box of DVDs. These I managed to rapidly sort like a cartoon octopus into their respective sections by sliding them along the marble floor like curling stones, while retaining a memory of which sections had already been created and which ones needed to be, all on the fly. (Huh. Haven’t thought about that in years. Turns out I have at least one skill. Time to update my LinkedIn!)
New categories now include ‘Priority Fiction’, ‘Useful Nonsense’ (Simonomicon, various spellbooks I have collected over the years, etc) and ‘Anglomancy’, which probably has way too much Welsh folklore in it for the section heading to stick.
Of the many things I learned at university (HAHAHAHA), it is one article that always comes to mind when messing about with my books. It might even be ‘the reason’ for my university experience, and that is Homi Bhabha’s Unpacking My Library… Again. (Requires free sign-up but definitely do it.) Granted, post-colonialism was au courant in the actual colonies in the 90s, but it seems to me that the piece gets more relevant, rather than less, as we have arrived in an era when ‘book as object’ is being culturally repositioned. I insist that you read it. There is much to be gained in reconsidering what a book or a book collection ‘is’ on both a personal and magical-cultural level, without stooping to the out-of-date, anti-intellectualism of the term ‘armchair magician’.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m tired so I’m going to collapse into this armchair.
With an old book. Off a new shelf.