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The quandary that is book shelving

The quandary that is book shelving

The books have once again piled up in stacks up to three feet high in many corners of the house. It’s time to get organized. Easier said than done. Un-shelving and reorganizing and re-shelving books is tricky business, with multiple options that can be endlessly fascinating and frustrating. But it’s an innocent species of self-therapy that I look to — for the most part.

The bookseller-author Larry McMurtry, one of my favorite novelists, is my mentor in this regard. I have a four-foot long shelf of almost all of his books.

McMurtry has for years operated Booked Up — a vast emporium of rare and used books that comprised 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. Getting there isn’t easy or scenic, unless you’re partial to scrub and mesquite, but more than worth the effort.

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 Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, he contemplates 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 DeFoe than he looks next to his near contemporary Smollett, so Tristram Shandy sits next to Moll Flanders rather than ‘Peregrine Pickle.’

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“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.”

My home library (there’s another one in Bryson City) 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, that 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 Lawrence Durrell’s novels, he is currently placed among the travel writers, a genre in which he excels.

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, where various critters that love books reside; that is, they love to gnaw on or burrow tunnels in their innards.  

No, I haven’t read all of the books in my home library or the ones in my office in town, which also requires reorganization.

“Have you read all those books,” I’m sometimes asked.

Now 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. And I will.

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 as long ago as 1965 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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