Organizing your shelves tells its own story

My father loved books more than anything. He had around 11,000 at the time of his death in March 2021, aged 83. There were books in her living room and bedroom, books in the hallways, closets and kitchen.

Sometimes I stop in the center of my own house like a bird stopped in flight, fascinated by the books that line my walls. I live in a small Manhattan apartment and I too have books in the living room, bedroom, hallway, closets. Often, I stare at them because I wonder about their geography. I wonder if I placed a book in the wrong place, according to an emotional map I made of my shelves. As I look at the titles, the associations crumble. by Tennessee Williams Memoirs is next to a biography of Patrick Dennis titled Uncle Mom, because Williams and Dennis had a lot in common: Pathos. Cruel fathers. Spectacular female characters. A dictionary of Yiddish slang and idioms is next to Stomach pains because, as secular as Nora Ephron is, her humor comes from deep within her Jewishness. The Lord of the Rings entered Many times and Rosemary’s baby because I love how they are a triumvirate of fantasy stories that have nothing in common except my personal opinion that they are the best of their kind. (Many would say Rosemary’s baby belongs to horror, not fantasy, but my system helps blur those lines.)

And then there’s the shelf above my desk. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that this is where I keep my favorite books. A more esoteric logic is at work. In About AliceCalvin Trillin wrote that his wife had a large envelope marked Important things, in which she collected letters the children had written to her, accounts of their accomplishments, and other ephemera. She seemed to know what was in that envelope by raw instinct. The same goes for the shelf above my desk. Here are the books that speak to part of my sensibility – my youthful daydreams, the worlds I once imagined. The princess to be married is up there – I read it in a single day when I was 12. “It’s my favorite book in the world, even though I’ve never read it.” Who could drop him after an opening line like that? Also on this shelf: New York Birds Field Guide, because I used to fantasize that my newborn would one day be a junior member of the National Audubon Society. Next to that: Tiffany’s table manners for teensa gift from my mother long ago that embodied her high standards of kindness and etiquette.

My books on writing are in the center of the shelf, because writing is what I do at my desk. They make me less afraid of being alone with my keyboard. Among them is On writing, by Jorge Luis Borges. Yet this book is not there because it is a question of writing. He’s here because of my dad.

My father loved Borges. I remember him reading aloud a passage in which Borges expressed his admiration for the “physical” character of English. He had ways of describing movement through space, he said, that were more expressive than those he could find in his native language, Spanish. My father read the passage with sensuous attention, like a foodie savoring a bowl of freshly harvested peas (MFK Fisher, An alphabet for gourmets) or the way James Beard uses fast pace and precise timing to achieve the optimal texture of scrambled eggs (James Beard, beard on food). My father’s joy in Borges’s words spread gently across his face in a smile that tugged at his lips and lit up his eyes. When he read aloud, you knew, deep down, that you were learning some kind of catechism.

My father particularly liked Borges’ short story “The Library of Babelwhich is about a library that is its own universe, filled with books whose typographical symbols seem to be arranged haphazardly. In the collection exist all possible combinations of 25 characters (22 letters, point, comma and space). The library therefore contains all the books ever written – and all the books that could ever be written – and all their permutations. This drives the story’s narrator to despair, for although the library contains all the treasures of the human mind, they are effectively impossible to find. My dad, a Caltech graduate, loved math as much as he loved books. Here we parted ways, and when he described “The Library of Babel,” my mind began to wander, although I didn’t say so. I couldn’t spoil his fun any more than I could knock over a child’s sandcastle. Moreover, he had transmitted what counted: his own love for history, which, after his death, gripped me with the force of the incantation.

Now I use “The Library of Babel” as a metaphor for the landscape of my own library. My books are not listed alphabetically or, for the most part, by genre. The arrangement appears to have been done entirely at random, unless you know the oddity by which it was devised. The books are placed next to each other for companionship, based on a shared kinship or sensibility that I believe binds them together. The little Prince is next to act oneby Moss Hart, because I think that Hart and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry convey, in their respective works, the same purity of heart and the same openness of expression. The little Prince is a French fable set mainly in the Sahara; act one is a memoir of a poor Jewish boy’s journey to Broadway. But for me, it’s pretty much the same thing: finding what matters in life and excluding everything that doesn’t matter.

I marvel that the complexity of the human heart can be expressed in the arrangement of his books. Inside this universe of paper, I find meaning in confusion, calm in a storm, the soothing murmur of hundreds of books communing with their neighbors. Opening them reveals precious passages delicately underlined in pencil; running my hand over the Mylar-wrapped hard covers reminds me how precious they are. Not just the books themselves, but the ideas they contain, the memories they evoke. The image of my father at his desk. The sound of his diction and intonation as he brought each character to life and drove each plot twist home. In these things I saw the card catalog of the infinite library of her heart, the map of her soul, drawn with painful clarity in the topography of her books.

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