Scott Russell Morris is a faculty member at the University of Utah Asia Campus in Incheon, Korea, where he lives with his wife and children. He has a PhD from Texas Tech University and an MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, Chattahoochee Review, Proximity Magazine, and elsewhere.
“If you arrange your books according to their contents you are sure to get an untidy shelf. If you arrange your books according to their size and colour you get an effective wall.”
–A. A. Milne “My Library”
Like Milne, I’ve just moved into a new house and my shelves are haphazardly full of quickly unpacked books and so, like Milne’s books, my books are not where they should be, but instead, where they are. In the past, my books, if they we organized at all, were arranged by topic. But this time I think I will try by color, which seems more appealing for some reason. The idea to organize my books by size and color is nothing new, of course; I got the idea from my friends Tim and Jessie—consciously, at least; I see now that I could have gotten it subconsciously from Milne, though I only returned to his essay after the fact.
But even then, there are practical difficulties because our shelves are not all the same height, so size is always a factor, even when the principle organization is whatever it will be. Thus my Penguin Press editions of four-inch tall essays by Montaigne (red), Bacon (blue), and Hazlitt (slightly angrier red) are rather rudely stacked next to other miniscule bindings regardless of color, which I don’t think Montaigne would mind, but Bacon would prefer that Montaigne was on the shelf with other books containing Montaigne, perhaps Sarah Bakewell’s stark-white biography of the Father of the Essay, How To Live, which, because it is a tall book, is currently on the bottom shelf, where the sturdier books were put not by design, but by convenience of weight. As it is, Bakewell’s hardback is likely to be sandwiched between courser, more pedestrian books that are similar only because of their size and weight, perhaps the bland-white Handwriting Analysis: Putting It to Work for You and the dramatic black with cab-yellow lettering Comics Crash Course. Hazlitt, of course, though only four-inches tall as I have him, would rather Bacon be on another shelf. But then, Hazlitt would prefer to lay all the books on other shelves.
Having written as far as this, I’m now curious what books Montaigne’s biography is actually sandwiched between, and I have to get up to check. The results are not as base as I had thought: to the left sits Silverstein’s jacketless Where the Sidewalk Ends, rather worn and dusty colored from a childhood of reading, and to the right hunkers the grandpaternal, silver-gray and creased Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 4th edition, a remnant from Kirsten’s graduate work in counseling. (You see, I have called this essay “My Library,” but really it should be “Our Library.” Perhaps I say my because I am egotistical, this may be true, but it may also be because I have a greater investment in the books as a English graduate student, or perhaps only because the shelves are close to my desk, where hers is in the bedroom, but even there we have complications because my desk—heavy and solid, a faux finish in forest green—is a piece of furniture Kirsten brought to our marriage, but as a workspace it is almost entirely mine.) Other books close at hand to How To Live include Intermediate Tagalog in glossy white; Tales of a Triumphal People: A History of Salt Lake Country, UT, a sort of tepid orange; Madden’s Quotidiana, black; Spandel’s The 9 Rights of Every Writer: A Guide For Teachers, maroonish, but so many different colors in the lettering so as to be distracting; and Glück’s The Wild Iris in gold and black with traces of a green so similar to that of the desk that I’ve pulled it out to admire the shades together. Eventually we’ll organize them by color and the proximities will change, though Tagolog and How to Live could stay together and they’ll likely be joined by Handwriting Analysis. At the moment, though, a sky blue W.S. Merwin and French-gray Ron Carlson also occupy the same shelf, as does my Uncle Richard’s self-published cheap, black-bound science fiction paperback. I’ve read none of those three books, so their relative merit as masterpieces doesn’t really matter.
Curious about proximities, I’ve just rechecked the shelf where we’d put the diminutive books, which are mostly old books with fraying covers, my favorite of which are two miniature hymn books bound in red cloth which we bought from an estate sale only because of their pleasing cardinal color. Montaigne and Bacon are there where I thought they would be, but Hazlitt has gone a journeying, and it was some time before I found him again in a stack of books and papers on my desk. On top of the stack were blank note cards with their envelopes, then the office-paper white Nikon D90 User’s Manual, Charles Doss’s olive green I Shall Mingle: Poems and Essays, then Hazlitt turned aside so I couldn’t see the spine, all atop two parti-colored children’s workbooks: United States Geography and the Rand McNally Kids’ Road Atlas (Once upon a time, Kirsten was a geography teacher, though why I feel that I should explain these book and not Handwriting Analysis or even Hazlitt’s little volume, I don’t know.)
That it took me some time to realize that there was a stack of books on my desk at all should tell you something about the state of my desk right now: all the drawers and cabinets still empty, their someday contents still across its top and at its feet. We’ve traded moving boxes for haphazard piles. There are empty CD jewel cases, business envelopes, a journal, the Bluetooth keyboard for Kirsten’s iPad, a picture of my mother, scissors, old travel maps from cities we’ve never been to, a notebook, utility bills. In fact, the only thing on the desk right now that will actually belong on rather than in the desk when I finally get around to organizing it are the computer I am currently typing on, one of the two desk lamps, and the lion’s skull a friend brought me from Africa. The miniature fan might stay, as well as an ever shifting pile of books.
I did do some arranging when I unpacked the first few office boxes, but I focused almost entirely on the books, placing them by color, since, as Milne says, we must not be shy to admit that our books are ornamentation. Yes, we mean to read them when we purchase them, but that rarely happens. Instead, we place them where they will be easily referenced, but, by and large, we end up buying more books which we will put upon the shelf long before we get around to reading the ones that we’ve already purchased. There’s something purely sentimental in the aquiring of books. We buy the books we like to think of ourselves as having read, not the ones we actually read which, by and large, we usually get from libraries, the public kinds.
When I started organizing by color, the thought of having essays scattered throughout the science fiction novels and the poetry mingled acrimoniously amongst the religious reference works drove me a bit batty, but I had a good start at it, getting three boxes unloaded from off the floor and a single, (our shortest) bookshelf thoroughly colorized—the top shelf started in white, faded into red, then merged into grays and blacks at the other end; in the middle shelf I arranged my brightly colored paperback versions of The Best American Essay and The Best American Short Story collections, using their brightly colored spines as markers rather than the collection date, making for a rainbow of a shelf that sprinkled in the reprinted classics with contemporarily bright bindings such as Gulliver’s Travels, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Things Fall Apart—but then Kirsten reminded me that there were more pressing matters, such as getting the dishes unpacked and the kitchen in a state where we could do more than make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Perhaps, she implied, we would want to sleep with sheets on the bed, which would mean finding the box with the linens. She also reminded me that with at least five book boxes still to unpack, my quaint little color scheme would fall apart quickly. Seeing the sense in all that, I left the rest of the boxes.
And there they stayed for several more days being joined by even more books because as we unpacked, we found books in all sorts of boxes, even when the label said “Clothing” or “Kitchen.” Whole boxes of books that hadn’t been labeled at all, only “Heavy.” Piles of books and other stuff soon covered the floor, even overtaking the still unladen boxes labeled “Books.” It soon became apparent that we wouldn’t have enough space on the shelves for all our books. We’d lost a small shelf as a casualty of moving and in the year our things had been in storage, we’d also acquired more books. But even when I returned from the home furnishing store with another shelf, it remained unassembled, still in its box like most of our other possessions because though we had been eager to get the library unpacked right away, the rest of the house took precedent. Getting the couch uncovered, for example, so that we would have a place to sit. Finding the clothes appropriate for our new jobs. But then one day, when the rest was mostly done, Kirsten finally set up the shelf, fighting with the stuff on the floor for space to lay out the planks, while I sat at this green desk grading student work, feeling slightly guilty for doing a labor that looked like lazing around while she did the more strenuous duty. But by the time we both finished those tasks, neither of us had the energy to actually fill the shelf, so it remained blank for several days.
Then one day I returned home from work to find that Kirsten had emptied the rest of the boxes, filling the remaining shelves as was convenient to clear the floor, not as made any real sense for a library. I see now that Handwriting Analysis is on this new shelf, not the one I’d unpacked, and that it shares shelf space with a red display copy of Pinocchio, a black Peyton Place, the red box set of Kirsten: An American Girl books, and my blue-gray undergraduate honors thesis, a science fiction novel so filled with typos I wonder how it ever got passed the thesis committee. My own color-centric exploration in organization looks at once silly and jewel-like against the organic entropy of her unpacking.
Kirsten also lined the shelves with knickknacks. Some are from our travels: a carved water buffalo from the Philippines, a leather-bound yurt from Kazakhstan, a photo of a door in Guatemala, calligraphy blossoms from Beijing’s Forbidden Palace, none of which are placed purposefully, but laid across the books, jammed up against other trinkets that aren’t as exotic but are still sentimental, glass bottles we decorated our wedding reception with, a blue and white teapot from her mother, a handcrafted scarecrow doll from mine, a globe with oceans of cream and counties of turquoise and gold, all of which makes actually getting to the books more difficult, a reminder that these books are more decoration than anything else, a better decoration, in fact, than any of the trinkets themselves would be. It is the books which lend the texture that sets apart the other treasures, that makes the lion’s skull into memento mori and this once-blank room into a library, which means that, like all the greatest libraries, this little room is our personal wunderkammer.
Eventually, our compulsion for cleanliness will compel the note cards into their correct compartments and the desk and floor to be free of muddled piles, but for now, I’m rather fond of the idea that looking for Hazlitt will mean that I’m as likely to stumble upon Marquis and Haskell’s appropriately pale yellow 1964 “definitive guide to cheese,” as I am upon McCarthy’s all-black The Road or upon my grandfather’s American College Dictionary, and that any are as interesting as the next, in a way. I do regret that my books—mostly paperbacks—aren’t as pretty as the ones Milne describes in his contemporaries’ libraries, bound in morocco and half-calf, beauties with uncut pages, wonders of an age where books were always both information and art. The publishers now assume we will read their books, not look at them, which is rather pompous and short sighted of them.
But still, this is the library we have, and it’s one we’re happy with, except of course for the disorderliness of it. One of these days, perhaps on a fine morning or a wet night, we’ll take the issue seriously in hand and put Hazlitt back on a shelf where he belongs, perhaps by Charles Lamb, who, as we all know, plays well with everyone and is, more to the point, about the same height and complexion.