Archived Mountain Voices

Shelving books is a very personal task

mtnvoicesFor awhile everything was in control. But that didn’t last. It never does. Once again my books are in total disarray. I can spend hours looking for a book I should find in a few minutes. The only good thing about this situation is that it provides an opportunity to re-shelve my books. And it gives me an excuse to reread Larry McMurtry’s books about books.

  McMurtry, the father of accomplished country musician James McMurtry, is one of my favorite authors. When I can find them, I have almost all of his books. For years he operated Booked Up — a vast bookstore of rare and used books comprised of nearly 400,000 volumes housed (according to subject matter) in four or five separate buildings in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, which is located in the middle of nowhere many miles south of Wichita Falls. 

In addition to well-known novels like Lonesome Dove, McMurtry has written two memoirs about book selling, collecting, reading, and related matters: Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999) and Books (2008). Having grown up on a hardscrabble farm outside Archer City, McMurtry thinks of his bookselling and book collecting as “book herding”— as opposed to the actual “cow herding” his father practiced. In his Walter Benjamin memoir, McMurtry contemplated the mysteries of book shelving:

Both in my library at home and in my bookshops I have a hard time hewing to any strict philosophy of shelving. Shelving by chronology (Susan Sontag’s method) doesn’t always work for me. The modest Everyman edition of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refuses to sit comfortably next to Leonard Baskin’s tall Beowulf, and exactly the same problem — incompatibility of size — crops up if one shelves alphabetically. Susan Sontag, on a visit when all of my books were in the old ranch house, found that she couldn't live even one night with the sloppiness of my shelving. She imposed a hasty chronologizing which held for some years and still holds, in the main.

Susan's principles notwithstanding, I make free with chronologies when the books seem to demand it. My Sterne looks happier beside my De Foe than he looks next to his near contemporary Smollett, so Tristram Shandy sits next to Moll Flanders rather than Peregrine Pickle.

Despite a nearly infinite range of possibilities in the matter of book arrangement, I've noticed that most people who really love books find ways of shelving them which respect the books but clearly reflect their own personalities.

Nevertheless, after several lengthy descriptions of various arrangements he had encountered through the years in distinguished personal libraries, McMurtry allowed in closing that: “I have long been a disciple of the Dusty Miller school of book shelving. Dusty Miller was a much admired London bookseller, who when asked how he arranged his books, replied that if he bought a short fat book he tried to find a short fat hole.”

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My home library consists, in reality, of various stacked shelves and bookcases scattered at nine strategic locations throughout the house, including the bedroom and the kitchen. I don't know how many books there are in the house, and I don't want to know. I would estimate, conservatively, there are several tons worth. The house shifts, as if situated on a fault line, each time I relocate a bookcase.  

My wife fears it’s only a matter of time before a bookcase makes an appearance in the bathroom. That would, in fact, pose an interesting bibliographic proposition. What sort of books should be shelved in one’s bathroom?

My present system has been scientifically formulated. Authors are sorted and shelved according to subject categories. All of a given author's titles have to go in one place — they can’t be divided up. 

This can be difficult. Does, for instance, Lawrence Durrell belong with the British travels writers or the British novelists? As I am not an admirer of Durrells novels, he is currently placed among the travel writers, a genre in which he excelled. 

Pre-1900 books are arranged chronologically. More recently published titles are arranged alphabetically. Never stack books on top of books that have already been properly shelved. Try to avoid shelving books at floor level.   

No, I haven’t read all of the books in my home library or the ones in my office in town, which also require reorganization. Why would anyone want to have read all of the books they possess? I feel good knowing they're there waiting for me to get around to them at the appropriate time. 

No, I don’t regret buying a single book I’ve ever purchased. I do regret each and every one that I’ve ever disposed of. And I hold bitter grudges against all those who have never returned books that I loaned them. 

I have a horrible memory, getting worse. To this day, however, I can visualize exactly where certain books I desired but couldn’t afford were shelved many years ago in remote bookstores scattered throughout the South in places like Nashville, Birmingham, Tupelo, Abbeville, Hodges, Madeira Island, Buxton, and so on. 

Book collection and reading and shelving and rearranging have been a most enjoyable part of my life. I can trace this inclination with certainty to when I was very young and mother purchased books and read them to me and then let me shelve them in a small green bookcase beside my bed.        

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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