People Of The Bookshelf
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.”
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.
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.
Claire Messud and Alice Munro? I’m sure they’d get on. But Norman Mailer and Anne Michaels? I think not. Best move the poetic and exquisitely sensitive Michaels next to Andre Makine — a much better match. Mailer can slide back along the shelf to sit beside D.H. Lawrence. If nothing else, they can always brag to one another about their sex lives.
I wouldn’t dream of subjecting Jane Austen or Margaret Atwood to the misogyny of Martin Amis (although they might find him rich material for an eviscerating satire). Paul Auster seems mensch enough to manage Amis, and then Atwood and Austen can get on together undisturbed.
Sometimes I stand there, book in hand, paralysed by indecision: Is it okay to shelve Jonathan Safran Foer next to Jonathan Franzen? Perhaps the two Jons are dear friends in real life, but what if they dislike each other? Safest, maybe, to put William Faulkner in between.
I’m not always so benevolent. When Thomas Mallon gave one of my novels a lacerating review, I retaliated by reshelving him. I snatched him from his place beside an author I thought he might enjoy — David Malouf — and wedged him instead alongside Toni Morrison, hoping that her liberal feminism might prove a thorn in his conservative spine.
As mad as all this is, it gets worse. Sometimes I ascribe metaphysical effects to my shelving choices. Placing Tim Winton alongside Virginia Woolf, I wonder whether his life-affirming wisdom might ameliorate her existential despair.
I thought I was alone in my craziness, until I confessed it to a friend whom I consider a model of sanity in most respects. “That’s nothing,” he said. He confided that he had a “punishment shelf” in his garage, reserved for writers he does not like.
When my sister came solo to dinner, I counselled her to compromise with her spouse, pointing out that his shelving proclivities could be far more eccentric, offering up my own as an example. “Yes,” she nodded sagely, “You are mad. But it must run in the family.” She then confessed that one day she’d been horrified to find a book by my husband, Tony Horwitz, shelved next to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. She’d rushed to reshelve him.