We recently moved across the country, my girlfriend and I, and we brought about 800 books with us. The east wall of our new apartment is dominated by floor-to-ceiling shelves. I knew I wouldn’t feel settled until our books were arranged in a sensible order. It took me five hours to sort them. They are now alphabetical by author, and within each author they are chronological by publication date. Genre means nothing: fiction sits next to non-fiction, Leo Tolstoy next to Joe Torre.
I want to say that bookshelves don’t lie—that they quantify, at a glance, exactly where your head is at and where your energies are being spent. But some of my favorite books are not here. I tend to shove them at the first person I come across, saying you have to read this right now, and I rarely get them back. Plus, I can’t pretend we’ve read everything we own. Volume seven of Kevin Starr’s history of California is nice to have around, but it’s barely been cracked.
Still, I feel like an inventory can tell us something. For example, the author with the most books on our shelves is Henry James (11). My girlfriend studied him in grad school, and it’s fitting that he should win the overall tally, since she is more enthusiastic about him than either of us is about any other writer. She’s also responsible for most of our books by the Brontë sisters (7), Jane Austen (5), George Eliot (4), Gustave Flaubert (4), and Edith Wharton (4). I guessed at the order of Wharton’s novels and I was completely wrong. It turns out she wrote The Age of Innocence last, when she was least innocent, and The House of Mirth first. The relatively unimpressive The Custom of the Country landed like a dud in between them. Who knew?
I am responsible for sizable collections of Don DeLillo (8), Gabriel García Márquez (8), and Ernest Hemingway (8), each of whom was an object of obsession at some point in my life. I’m a little embarrassed at how frequently I fall for late twentieth-century white male novelists, including Paul Auster (5), T.C. Boyle (5), and J.M. Coetzee (4). Even the older authors in my possession—F. Scott Fitzgerald (4), William Faulkner (4), and Vladimir Nabokov (5)—fit this pattern.
Together we account for a good selection of Joan Didion (5), Virginia Woolf (5), and William Shakespeare (10). We own exactly the books you would expect by George R.R. Martin (4) and J.R.R. Tolkien (4). I have a soft spot for a Russian crackpot named Victor Pelevin (4). My girlfriend has a regrettable stack of David Sedaris (5). I have stubbornly cultivated a relationship with a single author of mass market paperbacks, Michael Connelly (6).
I’m not sure what I’ve learned by sifting 800 volumes by hand. But it feels good to know exactly what’s on our shelves. A book collection isn’t a set of references that you keep handy, or objects that you put on display. It’s a record of what you’ve done and what you’re left with.
- Brian Hurley