Marrying Libraries

Unfortunately, the poor baby has been very sick with a terrible cold since Thursday. Her nose has been streaming, her eyes are watering, she’s had a temperature and developed a terrible cough. So we have had a very quiet long weekend, looking after the poor girl.

This afternoon, while she was asleep, I decided that I would rearrange the bookshelf in the spare room. I should confess that I have a passion for arranging bookshelves. When I was in primary school, I arranged my books according to the Dewey Decimal System, and made my own spine labels for them. Sad, but oh so true. If only the rest of my life had some order to it.

My rearranging reminded me of this account of marrying libraries in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman:

A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five. Our mismatched coffee mugs cohabited amicably; we wore each other’s T-shirts and, in a pinch, socks; our record collections had long ago miscegenated without incident, my Josquin Desprez motets cozying up to George’s Worst of Jefferson Airplane, to the enrichment, we believed, of both. But our libraries had remained separate, mine mostly at the north end of our loft, his at the south. We agreed that it made no sense for my Billy Budd to languish forty feet from his Moby Dick, yet neither of us had lifted a finger to bring them together.

We had been married in this loft, in full view of our mutually quarantined Melvilles. Promising to love each other for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health — even promising to forsake all others — had been no problem, but it was a good thing the Book of Common Prayer didn’t say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates. That would have been a far more solemn vow, one that would probably have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt.

I did laugh when I read this. My husband and I didn’t marry our book collections until we’d been married for some years. In fact, I think it only happened just before I had our girl. I had the nesting instinct very badly, and rearranged the spare room and the bookshelves at least four times in those months before the girl was born. By contrast, I think our CD collection got mixed up right from the beginning, and is happily blended in our lounge room to this day.

My husband likes novels of gritty realism: Irving Welsh and the like. He also has a great many books on how to listen to music. He has a taste for the controversial. I like Middle English poetry, we both have Shakespeare, then there’s all those Thomas Hardy novels from my Hardy phase in late adolescence. How to arrange the books? Should The Prisoner of Zenda go before or after Dickens? Should poetry go together? Rather strangely, the main areas in which my husband’s and my collections overlap is Shakespeare and Kafka. What does that say about us? I haven’t culled any from either collection. We have mostly married our books, but those gritty realism ones are off on a shelf of their own next to my husband’s desk. In terms of later literature, I have decided that books with a similar “feel” should go together – books about travel, books about Japan, books with a post-modernist flavour. That way, if I’m feeling in the mood for a book by an Australian author, I’ll be able to go to that section and select one.

It is a nice feeling sorting through one’s books. Each has its own individual flavour. Sometimes I think I am a devourer of books. As I sorted them, I remember which ones I enjoyed and found a few that I’ve always intended to read. I also think I should have another go at some books which I never finished. And my husband has a few interesting ones which I never would have purchased myself but which I think I would enjoy reading.

Do you think it’s just totally over the top if I put labels on the shelf indicating themes for anyone who happens to be browsing? Hmm, maybe don’t answer that question.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Marrying Libraries

  1. I think labels are a wonderful idea. 🙂 But then, I’m a wee bit OCD.

    I also had the dilemma of merging my books with my partner’s when we moved in together. I put little coloured dots on the inside back cover of MY books so that, um, if we broke up we would not fight over whose books were whom’s. Our double ups we paired and then chose the *best* one (many of our books are second hand so best could mean best quality, or the one that did not have a movie still as a cover). The double ups got boxed:- one for mine, one for his.

    Since being in the UK however, everything’s all mixed up: our finances, our books. It’s very worrying!

  2. About a year ago, we gave away the duplicates in our mutual CD collection to my sister (as person most likely to enjoy them). I think it’s an admission that you’re together forever if you give away duplicates.

    Funnily enough, there were far more duplicate CDs than there were books. But they were from wildly varying genres – eg, Portishead’s Dummy and Ministry’s Filth Pig (from the miserably sublime to metal grindcore). I must ask my sister what she thinks of it all.

    I’m glad I’m not the only compulsive labeller. Do you also happen to like those little plastic tags from 3M?

    I get tempted by those labelling machines in Officeworks (which produce neat little labels). Of course I know exactly what would happen. I would devise some excellent “system” with labels everywhere and after a week it would all be in ruins.

  3. fairlane

    I was correct in my initial observation LE, you are a great story teller. I just read a post about someone rearranging their books, and I enjoyed it.

    I have the same issue with books. My book shelf is always being arranged, rearranged to be more “aesthetically pleasing”. Yet, the rest of my apartment looks like someone with ADD lives in it. And of course they do.

    Books reflect so much of our lives. I have several volumes of all of Marx’s writings from when I was young and still dreaming of “Utopia”. Then there’s my “Existentialist” phase, my poetry phase, my “Spiritual phase”, my American Indian obsession, on and on.

    Books contain more than the author’s stories, they contain ours as well. This is why others rarely appreciate our books as much as we do.

  4. We’d just combined ours a few months before we separated… ugh.

    Did you see the library in the US where they rearranged the books by spine colour? Oranges gradually fading into reds and so on… Looked quite cool, but you’d hate to have to find anything in it.

  5. Aimee

    I not only sorted my parents collection of books when I was still living with them, I also labelled the shelves. When my brother last moved house the task they gave me was reorganising the bookshelves as the books were unpacked. In my own apartment, the bookcase is the neatest and most stable element – sorted first alphabetically by author, then topically for non-fiction (this is not a strict rule as some non-fiction I would be more likely to be looking for under the author’s name, in which case it ends up in the alpha section). I have, however, run out of room again and need to do another cull. *sigh* I’ve reluctantly concluded that some books don’t need to be kept, but everything I might ever want to re-read or lend to someone does need to be kept. If only I were slighly more discriminatingm, or had a bigger flat.

    Does anyone else have books in every room in the house? I mean entire collections as permanent fixtures. The “kitchen books” with their pretty culinary temptation are standard in many dwellings I think, but what about the “pile to be read when sitting in the living room” which comprise a cross between crafty interests and novels, the “bedside table stack” with its blend of the religious and literary, or the perhaps less well-known “bathroom shelf” which tend to be collections of short stories and books about words and grammar?

  6. pete m

    My wife is just under 6 years younger than me, but we had not 1 single CD or book the same. Not even the same bible versions. Does this bode well or not for the future? We have now passed the length of marriage time that her first one lasted, so that must be a good sign. I also hazard a guess the bub might keep things interesting as well.

    She now likes my books / music and I like to avoid hers. Well, really, I refuse to listen to bad 80’s pop and read books on teaching 5 year olds how to read.

    I’m being too harsh – she did introduce me to Wilbur Smith, whom I have avoided, but now found passable.

  7. Mr Lefty: Separating your books is pretty upsetting, I would imagine. 😦

    That spine colour library would be awesome to look at, but yes, a nightmare to find anything in. I like the “Rainbow” editions of the English Law Reports – various reports in red, green and orange. If I ever become a millionaire, I will have to get them.

    Aimee: Yes, I do have different book collections in different rooms – in this room (kitchen/living room) there are cookbooks, Law Institute Journals, and law text books. I wonder if they’re happy on the shelf together? In the lounge are all the baby books and quite a few parenting books. Under my bed are all the books I mean to read.

    Pete M: I don’t think my Mum and Dad had many books in common when they married, but they’ve been married over 30 years now. I think it’s good to have different interests!

  8. GavinM

    Hello LE

    I didn’t have the issue of marrying libraries when I met my wife, she’s Thai and did not read any English and had no Thai books. From the time we first started dating, when I could, (I was still in the Legion, and initially she was here, therefore I could only see her when I had leave….happily she relocated to France after about 6 months), I used to read my books to her…(and still do), consequently her exposure to books has been pretty much limited to what I like. (Tolkien, Asimov, Solzhenitsyn, Archer, Christie, Hitchcock, King, to give you an idea of a few of the authors that are on my shelves…There’s plenty more, but I tend to buy a book if I like the look of the story, rather than going by who wrote it, so I don’t always take any notice of the author’s name). Occasionally when shopping, she picks one up because she likes the look of the cover.

    I must say I have always enjoyed those times when just the two of us can cuddle up on the couch and read a book together, although, the arrival of 2 more children to add to the son she already had, (who was almost 3 when we met), made it considerably harder to find the time to do so.

  9. Yes, it has to be admitted that the arrival of little ones does cut into reading time. Although my Dad read books with me aloud when I was little, which was fantastic. It was he who introduced me to Tolkien, along with some other really great authors. During my teens, I had a particularly troubled period – whereupon Dad got out Lord of the Rings and we all read it together again. It was great for comfort.

    I like the sound of your bookshelf – I also don’t care who the author is as long as the story is good – although there’s a bit of the “literary canon” on our shelves because I studied English and History at university!

  10. GavinM

    Yes..I have a number of Shakespeare’s works and quite a few poetry books too…all survivors from my English and English Literature classes at school…Although I must confess they haven’t been opened for many years.

  11. Actually, inspired by my bookshelf reorganisation, I started to read one of my poetry books – and gee it was enjoyable. Must read more poetry.

  12. I have that Anne Fadiman book too. And it took us about four goes before my husband and I managed to merge our book collections. The science fiction was the hardest, and agreeing on which trashy books we could bear to give away to Lifeline.

  13. Penguin, we have taken the terrible sci fi and fantasy books and put them in a box for now. Perhaps in five years time, when I haven’t missed them at all, they might go to Lifeline. Maybe.

  14. GavinM

    I love trashy Sci-fi and fantasy books…pure escapism…

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