Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

How to Arrange Your Bookshelf for Productivity and Laughter

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I live in a house with three poets. While my baggage of books has been culled through the years by countless inter-provincial relocations, the other two members of the household moved in with a staggering amount of accumulated literature. We set up a makeshift triage library where we figured out exactly what titles were held in duplicate (or triplicate), and placed the extras in a cool, dry place. This left a pile of tomes to be sorted that was taller, wider, and heavier than the couch we positioned along the room’s far wall. The conversations we’ve had both amongst ourselves and with guests inform the following guide to how to organize the evidence of your compulsive book obsession.

Step 1: Shelving Patterns
It’s essential you develop a rubric early on, and even more essential that it be one you can maintain. There are many ways to go about this. Alphabetical is popular, but it leaves out all those books without an author (the Dictionary, eg). Another way people like to do it is by very precise genre definitions. But you really do need to be specific, if you’re looking for a novel and you’ve only pared down your nine-shelf book collection to a six-shelf fiction section, you haven’t thought this through enough. Alternatively, get too precise (19th century African-Canadian librettos, eg) and passing pedestrians will stop short on the sidewalk to stare.

Beyond these classics, some fop-haired young modernists have made conceptual art out of categorizations like colour, weight, materials, and smell. All of these are true, except for smell. If you’re a historian, you can go by year of publication. Even better, if you’re a literary historian, you can go by year of original publication. If you’re a nostalgist, you could make it personal and go by the year the copy first came into your possession. If you’re an elitist you can endeavour to keep your new and used books separate. And if you’re a technophile, you can shrink your whole library down to a microchip and sit in the basement, basking in the cool liquid glow of its display. The options are what you make them.

Step 2: Immigration Strategies
This is all well and good in the planning stages. But at some point, you’re going to want a new book. It’s at this point that your strategy’s true merit will make itself apparent. Did you leave enough room on the shelves? Can you remember why you put your Langston Hughes and William Burroughs right next to each other? Note: Yes you can. They’re both from Kansas. It’s at this point, as much as anywhere else, that the true geography of your bookshelf will make itself known. Will it be casual, littered, lived-in? Or will it maintain a pristine newness throughout its full lifetime? I recommend erring a little towards the former. I developed a theory in college that the professors with the messiest offices were usually the most interesting. They’re the ones that would waste away a couple hours of prime marking time some afternoon trying to decide on their favourite poem from their collected William Blake, and then throw the weighty volume on the top of the pile and head for the pub. This same theory might apply to normal, every day apartment dwellers, also. Whoever you are, it’s essential to know what you own.

Step 3: Decorations: The Marginalia of Actual Life
So, you’ve telegraphed your shelving strategy, and made peace with the flow of new titles. What’s left? It’s important, now, to differentiate your bookshelves from how bookshelves tend to look inside of book stores. You need to find a way to make them yours. As an example, here is a brief inventory of the kind of decorations present on, in, or between the units of our library: copies of the records “I Started Out as Child” by Bill Cosby and “Christopher Cross” by Christopher Cross, framed portraits of three house-favourite poets, a Spiderman action figure, an Andre the Giant bobblehead, and a globe from sometime in the mid-1970s. What I’m trying to say is this: identify your heroes, and represent them. As this room will become essentially a monument to the collected ephemera of your life, you’ll want it to include some toys.

Play on,
Jake.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page