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Reconsidering Perec’s Library

I have a lot to say about the art of organizing one's bookshelf.
February 8, 2012, 9:30pm

In 1978, Georges Perec published a now-famous essay titled, “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books,” in which he outlines various analytical methods one might use to organize a home library. He suggests the following possibilities for classification: alphabetically, by continent or country, by color, by date of acquisition, by date of publication, by format, by genre, by major periods of literary history, by language, by priority for future reading, by binding, by series. “None of these classifications is satisfactory by itself,” Perec notes, “every library is ordered starting from a combination of these modes of classification, whose relative weighting, resistance to change, obsolescence, and persistence give every library a unique personality.”

In my own home the body of books is a rigorous muddle, one I’ve gotten so used to over years of usage it seems eternally ingrained. The major constructs I consider tend to shift from shelf to shelf, building an array of sections that hold together but could also easily be reconvened. For instance, I went through a big phase where I was obsessed with the notoriously flagrant editor Gordon Lish and everything he touched. The first column on the bookcase that flanks my bed begins at the top with all of the books Lish wrote himself, organized among themselves by date of publication. Next to and below Lish, I group the authors with whom he has some association; namely, those he has edited or taught. I stagger these authors beginning with those who I most primarily associate with his influence (Amy Hempel, Diane Williams), which then tends to diminish in immediacy as they physically shift away (Sam Lipsyte, Gary Lutz). Other authors Lish had worked with (Don Delillo, Cynthia Ozick, Cormac McCarthy) may fit on another shelf entirely, as in some way they feel more of a wholly other field. The feel is the most important thing—the private logic and the larger texture of their tone.


I won’t indulge a tedious examination of how every column and lateral shelving space in my collection tends to work around this frame, jumping from one principle to another, sometimes on the same shelf. I’ve had my books this way for years, and often it is the first thing I must arrange in my apartment when I’ve moved, as it seems the only structure I bring with me that makes my home my home. These are things I’ve had around forever, segments of moments I spent carrying that object around, now forced to press up against each other in the eternal pause of perhaps being pulled back out.

In some ways, placing a book I have recently finished reading into its place in the system feels even more fulfilling than the turning of the last page. “Now you are a part of here,” I think, maybe, as I am trying to locate the exact point in the pre-existent system for each completed book. Sometimes I realize I’ve shelved something incorrectly, and fixing it thereafter feels somehow like a medical relief—drugs for dorks. It sounds ridiculous, maybe, but it’s also a genuine comfort, a thing I can oversee and control.

Some potentially provocative ways of organizing books Perec did not breach: by alphabetical order of first word of the first sentence, or by the last word of the last sentence (what kind of hybrid sentences would these methods then create, running through the home); by how much you loved the book, from least to most (in which the structure might be continually updated, forcing arbitrary reevaluation as you pass, as if the books were reaching out to grab you); by how much of the book you can remember (forcing the wholly forgotten down into a slog of traces competing for higher ranking, while at the other end they snake into semantic machines); by height; by weight; by word count; by evocation of affect; by how mangled or dirty from wear the book itself is (these gross objects); by where you were when the book was read (bisecting your home into a continuum of locations surrounded by the outside world, a sort of impression map); no order at all (which seems perhaps the most common among the less active readers that I know, though without the intentionality of no intention—we’d like not laziness, but invitation to chaos).

There are, as well, likely infinite applicably impossible principles one could use: age the author died at or will die at; number of words the author spoke aloud during the time it took the book to be written; the amount of truth in the book; the number of times the letter X appears, or the word surface; the number of times a copy of the book has been carried into a McDonald’s… on and on. A whole other essay—perhaps a book itself—could be devoted to the ridiculous index of such. And beyond the fact that any of these hypotheticals could take years to enact (if any of them are even possible), I like the idea that the books around me, in whatever space they end up taking, are at all times rotting in that potential recondition, their insides lit with content of a mutating, hyperphysical nature: space deforming its own space, even while just sitting there looking like a hunk of paper.

Since 2001 I’ve kept a list of every title I’ve read in the order I read them. More so than any of the above systems, I’ve thought about reordering my books based on that order. It begins with A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (I know, I know) and ends with the book I finished only yesterday, HHhH, by Laurent Binet. This practice has led me to feel there is a very certain affect caused by the chain of order, what butts up against what. A small detail or feeling lingering from one book seems to highlight a different sort of nature in the next, often changing the experience of the book.