October 11, 2013

Georges Perec on arranging one’s books


Georges Perec has sage advice about what to consider when arranging your bookshelf.

The question of  how to arrange books on a shelf gives every bibliophile pause. A seemingly simple task has enormous possibilities. Should books be arranged by subject, author’s last name, or (heaven forbid) color? How many books should you have in your library? What happens when you can’t remember where you put a book you love?

Fortunately, Georges Perec, author of La Boutique Obscure. offers helpful suggestions in “Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books,” for those considering their options when putting books on a shelf or organizing a personal library. In addition to categorization methods offered above, Perec adds some other ideas, including “by continent or country, 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, or by series.”

But while the impulse to categorize is always a temptation, Perec notes that mixed with a little disorder, the urge for order can have delightful consequences.

Between these two tensions, one which sets a premium on letting things be, on a good-natured anarchy, the other that exalts the virtues of the tabula rasa, the cold efficiency of the great arranging, one always ends by trying to set one’s books in order. This is a trying, depressing operation, but one liable to produce pleasant surprises, such as coming upon a book you had forgotten because you could no longer see it and which, putting off until tomorrow what you will not do today, you finally redevour lying face down on your bed.

If you run out of space to put books, Perec suggests other places or solutions that border on interior decorating expert advice:

between two windows,

in the embrasure of an unused door,

on the steps of a library ladder, making this unusable (very chic),

underneath a window,

on a piece of furniture set at an angle and dividing the room into two (very chic, creates an even better effect with a few potted plants).

Some books, says Perec, are easy to categorize, for example “Books on the cinema, whether essays on directors, albums of movie stars, or shooting scripts. South American novels, ethnology, psychoanalysis..” Of course, book arranging has its difficulties. Like where to put a book that is difficult to categorize, like, as Perec suggests, the a PMLA volume (Proceedings of the Modern Language Association)?

When all else fails, Perec says the personal library or one’s bookshelf has other uses:

It is no bad thing in any case that between the two our bookshelves should serve from time to time as joggers of the memory, as cat rests and as lumber rooms.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.