After trolling the notes from Piper’s Book Was There and adding a number of books to my TBR list, I also got ahold of an article, “Falling Asleep over the History of the Book” by Seth Lerer (PMLA, Vol. 121, No. 1, Jan 2006, p 229-234) thinking it was about reading in bed. Reading in bed is mentioned at the very end of the article but nothing especially interesting or important is said about it. The article is really just an introduction to a special issue of PMLA on the history of the book. Talk about disappointing.

There were a couple interesting thoughts/ideas/questions in the piece though like this on the literary canon:

Books are objects, though, and canonization is as much a process of selecting space as of selecting value. How can we fit the range of literature on the shelf? The physical, artifactual nature of the book has made the canonizing of the literary work into an act of space management. I think it is worth pausing over this suggestion to provide another lens for […] thinking about the past and future of the book.

Can I just say that librarianship has been, and is, all over the space management thing? And not just for literature but for all other disciplines too. Lerer does go on to mention libraries but but not so much in relation to what he said above. He discusses libraries in terms of cataloging and points out the Cambridge University Library organizes books in part by size, the Marzian Library in Venice by date of acquisition, and Robert Cotton, a 17th c book collector organized his books by ancient emperors. Lerer wonders briefly how we arrange our books affects not only the way we see and find them as objects, but the way we read them and view literature in general. It’s a much better thing to wonder about than how shelf space affects canonization.

I read many years ago about a famous library in Europe that was once the personal library of, I believe, an author. He had his shelves and shelves of books organized by association and sometimes how the book was related to its neighbor wasn’t clear until you read the book. The last book on the last shelf supposedly referred back to the first book on the first shelf. How I wish I could remember more about this library because it was really fascinating. Maybe someone out there knows about it?

Anyway, I can see how shelving books like in the unknown library can affect how we see and read each book. But I doubt many people shelve their books like that. Think about the way you shelve your books. Mine are alphabetical more or less and broken out into different categories — fiction and nonfiction, poetry, classic fiction, books about books, reference books, etc. Then the TBR books are pretty much a wild jumble. My system helps me find my books when I want them, most of the time, but how does it affect the way I see literature? It’s a rather conventional system, does that mean I have a conventional idea of reading and literature’s possibilities? Or does it simply reflect that I value being able to easily locate my books over what a more creative arrangement might impart? Or maybe it is all bunk and means absolutely nothing.

I just don’t know. While I acknowledge a creative arrangement might provide extra bookish insight, I don’t want to be relegated to the conventional and uncreative heap because of the way I shelve my books. Therefore I’m leaning toward it not making that much difference how books are organized in my personal library.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

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