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Shelf-Conscious

December 27, 2012 | by

Chris Killip, 'The Library of Chained Books,' Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, UK, 1992.

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.

“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”

There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.

There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves.

As it turns out, for a great deal of their history, shelves were much more haphazard than they are today. Before they even displayed books, they supported piles of scrolls. In the first century BC, Atticus loaned Cicero two assistants to build shelves and to tack titles onto his collection. “Your men have made my library gay with their carpentry work,” Cicero reported. “Nothing could look neater than those shelves.”

But around the time the codex emerged in the first century AD, open shelves—which now housed two clashing forms, the long cylindrical scroll and the flat rectangular codex—began to be considered hideous. Texts were sent into hiding, stored in armoires and trunks, which were convenient for transporting books, but not for accessing them.

For the next fourteen hundred or so years, books, as Henry Petroski, a professor of civic engineering and history at Duke, writes in The Book on the Bookshelf, were shelved every which way but straight up, spine out. Engravings of private studies show books piled horizontally, standing on the edge opposite their spine (their fore edge), as well as turned fore edge out.

Ezra the scribe with his armoire of horizontally oriented books from Folio 5r of the 'Codex Amiatinus' (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana).

In the Middle Ages, when monasteries were the closest equivalent to a public library, monks kept works in their carrels. To increase circulation, these works were eventually chained to inclined desks, or lecterns, thus giving ownership of a work to a particular lectern rather than a particular monk. But as collections grew, surface space diminished, and books came to be stacked on shelves above the lectern, at first one and then many. The problem, of course, was that two books chained next to each another couldn’t be comfortably studied at the same time: elbows knocked; shackles clinked and tangled.

Hence the innovation of vertical storage. One book could be removed without disturbing the rest. Yet the transition was gradual. Books in monasteries retained their chains for some time, and many leather covers, particularly in private libraries, protruded irregularly, tricked-out as they were with embossing and jewels. Those books that did stand were oriented with their spines to the back of the shelf.

Sometimes an identifying design was drawn across the thick of the pages. A doctor of law just north of Venice named Odorico Pillone had Titian’s nephew, Cesare Vecellio, draw the fore edges of his books with scenes befitting their content. Other times a title label flagged off the inner edge of the cover or was affixed to the chain.

A selection from Odorico Pillone’s library with fore edges painted by Cesare Vecellio.

The first spine with printing dates from 1535, and it was then that books began to spin into the position we’re familiar with.

 

From The New York Times Shows You 65 Ways to Decorate with Books in Your Home, photographer unknown.

Despite the proliferation of affordable books with printed spines in the intervening centuries, the gold standard of shelving, the built-in bookshelf, didn’t become prevalent until the Depression. Edward Bernays, the man who sold women on smoking and invented “public relations” in 1923 with a course at NYU and a book called Crystallizing Public Opinion, was hired by publishers to hasten book sales. As Petroski notes, he deployed famous public figures to proclaim “the importance of books to civilization and then convinced architects, home contractors and interior designers to build homes with bookshelves, believing, ‘where there are bookshelves, there will be books.’” Two decades later, The New York Times was putting out a dollar magazine, The New York Times Shows You 65 Ways to Decorate with Books in Your Home, celebrating the cheering effect of a wall of the publishing industry’s lithe and colorful new covers.

Now we long for these slatted walls. They are, in James Wood’s words, the adult “show shelves,” in Jonathan Lethem’s, the object of childhood longing (and they were always to me a symbol of intellectual and economic well-being).

James Wood and Claire Messud’s “show shelves,” Cambridge, MA.

The cognitive psychologist and pop-science writer Steven Pinker and his wife, novelist Rebecca Goldstein, create theirs out of white smart cubes, which Pinker also employs in his closet to color code his shirts. Time critic Lev Grossman’s are the object of loathing—“my damn divorce bookcases”—while the comic novelist Gary Shytengart prizes his for adding a “sense of drama to the living room.” That is, a purely aesthetic drama.

Gary Shteyngart’s living room drama, available at Design Within Reach.

Junot Díaz keeps every book he has ever bought (even if it means having to do so in storage). Pinker prunes every few years, while the novelist and critic Edmund White frequently buys books to write an essay and then dumps them all after it runs.

“To be weighted down by things—books, furniture—seems somehow terrible to me,” Claire Messud says. And it was this very concern—the mental burden of being anchored by books, the cost and bother of moving boxes yet again, and the flattering idea that a donation could do some good—that led my boyfriend and me recently to shed more than two hundred titles.

My boyfriend was ruthless. He chucked a book if he thought it’d be easy enough to get again for a dollar. From him, Housing Works got Nabokov (The Gift), Hemingway (a second copy of In Our Time), Ishiguro (A Pale View of the Hills), and Ozick (The Pagan Rabbi, which, I’m sad to say, snuck past me).

I’ve always felt an obligation to keep any book with which I’ve had some sort of relationship, even if it was an insignificant one—an assignment for a short review, for instance. Over time, these bad and mediocre books began to stand on my shelves as reproaches—Was I fair? Did I do the book justice? Whom did I hurt?—and I was glad to send them off. But I kept most else, especially if I’d scribbled in it. My annotations—“!!” or “Hahah” or “Bleh”—are asinine, but I’m fond of them. Analyses can be recooked, but these grunts fossilize an initial reaction—how I responded to Notes from Underground at eighteen (“Meh”) and then three formative years later (“WAH”).

I put the survivors on a few new Billy Bookcases. (IKEA has sold more than twenty-eight million, and I, for better or worse, own four.) They went up like all my other books, in no particular order.

Someday I’d like to change that—but I couldn’t go through all the effort just to be seen as being serious.

Francesca Mari has written for The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications.

52 COMMENTS

16 Comments

« Older Comments
  1. Elizabeth Moon | February 8, 2012 at 11:41 am

    A room without visible books is sterile, cold, unwelcoming. It would be ideal (for me, at least) to have floor to ceiling bookcases on most walls (something achieved only on one wall each of two rooms) and if money permitted, I’d have a true library room: all books, long table, comfortable chairs.

    Shelving–mostly by topic, though also by need. The field guides now sit beside me as I type, easy access for ID when working on new images from the land. Beneath them, dictionary, thesaurus, Chicago Manual of Style. A leaky roof took a lot of the older paperbacks and some hardcovers boxed for transport to a new location.

    We prune rarely; even if I haven’t read a book for twenty years, some insomniac night at 3 am I may need that book–that single book–to make it to dawn. (Why would someone need The Handbook of Chemistry and Physics at 3 am? Logarithms sooth the mind that can’t get rid of last night’s political debate. Reading history in such case simply raises the heart rate and spawns fantasies of pushing politicians headfirst into the books. Unfortunately, the Handbook is an uncomfortable book to fall asleep with; its blocky shape ensures rolling onto it later and wakening with a mysterious bruise on a rib)

    We are both re-readers, and though our reading habits overlap, there’s a fairly large chunk of bookshelves “belonging” to one or the other. We jealously guard our own books from the others’ pruning (an early mistake in our marriage was his tossing _my_ organic chem text along with his on the grounds that there were newer editions. And no, I couldn’t find that edition–which I’d made helpful notes in–in a used book store.)

    The book-herd has grown–outgrown every place we’ve lived, including this one–but I’m still a reluctant pruner and regret those books lost to lending or water damage or in moves.

  2. James Cappio | February 8, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Sontag notwithstanding, you’re not serious unless you double shelve. BILLY bookcases are suitable for this purpose, especially with paperbacks.

  3. Josh Anderson | February 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    I obsess over the presentation of my books–I can’t imagine a home without a library. And as John Waters puts it, “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” Words to live by.

  4. Deborah Rose Reeves | February 10, 2012 at 1:35 am

    A wonderful novel on the same subject is ‘La Casa de Papel’ (The House of Paper) by the Argentinean writer Carlos María Domínguez. For a true – or serious – lover of books it is part nightmarish tragedy, part sorrowful love-story. I cannot recommend it enough.

    The protagonist, Brauer, is a bibliophile who–given the accusations of plagiarism between them– could not have Shakespeare sit on a shelf beside Christopher Marlowe:

    “Nor, of course, could he place a book by Martin Amis next to one by Julian Barnes after the two friends had fallen out, or leave Vargas Llosa with García Márquez.”

    And on the subject of marginalia ‘Mehs’ and ‘Wahs’, Brauer is a man who, defending his dog-eared pages and scribbles in the margins, said: “I fuck with every book, and if I don’t leave a mark, there’s no orgasm.”

    Superb. Do buy a copy, read it, and when you’re finished lovingly place it on your BILLY bookcase.

  5. Christopher Keeble | February 14, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    I make it a point to bury the smart books and display only my trashy reads. I like the idea of pretentious asses looking at my bookshelves and thinking less of me.

  6. Patrick Fay | February 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    I really don’t consider the opinions of strangers when arranging our books. Perhaps I am not a serious person but I arrange my books with the goal of making it easy for me to find what I am looking for. Non-fiction titles are arranged roughly by subject matter while fiction is sorted roughly by author and nationality of the author. But I also have a shelf with new purchases in my to-read queue. It might look like a hodgepodge to others but it works for me.

    I keep books I may re-read or recommend to a friend and I get rid of the rest to make room for new ones.

  7. valentina capomassi | February 16, 2012 at 7:31 am

    I remember each position of my books…because of their are not so noumerous…may be!

  8. valentina capomassi | February 16, 2012 at 7:39 am

    I remember exactly each position of my books…because they are not so numerous…perhaps! (Sorry for my english, I’m italian)

  9. LJW | February 21, 2012 at 3:51 am

    ‘I’ve always felt an obligation to keep any book with which I’ve had some sort of relationship, even if it was an insignificant one’ – so glad I’m not alone in keeping all books, even ones I didn’t enjoy. I have pruned in the past, a rare and reluctant occurrence and I can never remember why I did. I still lament 20 years on that I sold my 1st year university textbooks – those German novellas and medieval history texts!!!

    If I read a book from a library or belonging to someone else, I have to own it as well and will buy it eventually just to have, even if I never read it again (although I am a re-reader). With no IKEA in New Zealand, I double stack my books on my inadequate shelves and plan new shelving units where I can organise to my heart’s content…

  10. tiles | May 11, 2012 at 6:03 am

    Very helpful blog.many Many thanks.

  11. Chris Roberts | May 24, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    This piece is as about as dry as eating a book, sans any condiments.

  12. jack | December 27, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    those “writers” mentioned (especially the politically correct acceptance of a barely literate scribe as Diaz) to boost up the article are laughable.

  13. Susanna | December 28, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    I don`t like the idea of books like a piece of decoration,it`s fake and a litle bit arrogant (hipster thing). I prefer to get books in a public library… it`s cheaper and better for the enviorment.

  14. Robin Collins | December 30, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    I have 45,000 books and I’ve read them all twice. Once read, I burn them and rebuy in order to support writers who get 8 cents a book. The winner is the publisher, the loser is IKEA.

  15. Earl B Russell | January 1, 2013 at 7:54 am

    I hate to think of what this may mean, but I arrange a number of the books in my study based on the height of shelves and book size. Sometimes I arrange them in descending order from larger to smaller. Obviously, aesthetics comes into play in these cases.

    Some are arranged by heroes, such as my small but deeply meaningful library on Abraham Lincoln, another on my childhood hero, Mickey Mantle.

    Other groupings in my study and throughout our house are based on many other criteria: World leaders, histories of universities, classics, art, humor, novels, travel, and many others.

  16. JLS | January 2, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Books arranged in no particular order except by author – and not even alphabetically. Anything else makes no sense! All I care about is if I have a general idea of where to look for the book on my shelves – it’s the books themselves that matter, not how they are arranged or what a visitor may think of your organization, or lack there of!

36 Pingbacks

  1. [...] by David Chew who linked me this Tweet(function() { var po = document.createElement('script'); po.type = 'text/javascript'; po.async [...]

  2. [...] Francesca Mari at the Paris Review discusses whats on your bookshelf [...]

  3. [...] “‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” said Susan Sontag.  And what can you tell when they have no books?  Here. [...]

  4. [...] husband sent me this link to Shelf-Conscious and my head exploded. Did you know that people used to shelve their books spine-in and then draw a [...]

  5. [...] Shelf-Conscious (via The Paris Review) There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. Tagged as: link roundup, weekly bookmarks Leave a Comment [...]

  6. [...] To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self: towards a history of bookshelves. [...]

  7. [...] sent me a terrific article from the Paris Review last week about Unpacking My Library, in which Harvard professor Leah Price [...]

  8. [...] by Francesca Mari theparisreview [...]

  9. [...] Mari’s recent Paris Review article “Shelf Conscious” is a fascinating read that starts with the premise embodied in a quote from Susan Sontag “You can [...]

  10. [...] of your shelves and think about what they might say about you, the genesis for which came from The Paris Review‘s “Shelf-Conscious” article.  I picked our living room shelf because it’s most visible to passers-by.  I took the [...]

  11. [...] Meanderings and Earful of Cider, inspired by this article, decided to post a picture of a random book shelf in their home, to see what it might say about [...]

  12. JulzReads says:

    [...] only do I love this article (via BookRiot ) for its lovely history of book shelving, I also adore the pretty pictures.  And [...]

  13. [...] you shelved your books like this now, people would really worry about [...]

  14. [...] also recently ran across the article “Shelf-Conscious” by Francesca Mari at The Paris Review, which is a fascinating read about shelving books [...]

  15. [...] O jeito como guardamos os livros nas estantes hoje (de pé, com a lombada para fora) pode parecer óbvio, mas não foi sempre assim: em outras épocas já foi comum guardar os livros na horizontal, e até mesmo com a lombada para dentro da estante. (The Paris Review) [...]

  16. [...] recent article in the Paris Review got me thinking. What does my bookshelf say about me? To quote the  Share [...]

  17. [...] recent article in the Paris Review got me thinking. What does my bookshelf say about me? A close friend of mine [...]

  18. [...] Shelf-Conscious (Francesca Mari at The Paris Review) My annotations—“!!” or “Hahah” or “Bleh”—are asinine, but I’m fond of them. Analyses can be recooked, but these grunts fossilize an initial reaction—how I responded to Notes from Underground at eighteen (“Meh”) and then three formative years later (“WAH”). [...]

  19. [...] history, writing has moved from storage in scrolls and tablets to being stored in books. The first known spine printing occurred in 1535, making way for books to be stored spine-out. Previously, monks and libraries [...]

  20. [...] and economies based upon values of sharing impact what we choose to purchase and own?See Shelf-conscious by Francesca Mari for further reading on this.* The above image is of fashion designer Karl [...]

  21. [...] Shared Paris Review – Shelf-Conscious, Francesca Mari. [...]

  22. [...] apparso un po' di tempo fa sul New York Times. E c'è addirittura chi si cruccia sulla disposizione del libri in sé, con studi storici a [...]

  23. [...] I already passed on this history of the bookshelf? Here it is, in any [...]

  24. [...] Francesca Mari at the Paris Review discusses whats on your bookshelf [...]

  25. [...] this: To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self. The Paris Review towards a history of [...]

  26. [...] What happens if the bookcases ever become sentient? [...]

  27. [...] by looking at their books,’ ” Susan Sontag told the novelist Sigrid Nunez once, as we learned in a post last week on the Paris Review website. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” [...]

  28. [...] cool is that? And then I found this fantastic article from The Paris Review a few days later on the evolution of the bookshelf and that back in the [...]

  29. [...] For the Paris Review last year Francesca Mari dove into the surprisingly rich history of book storage, in which books have been tethered and piled every which way. [...]

  30. [...] histories of bookshelf use, with gorgeous pics: Paris Review – Shelf-Conscious, Francesca Mari and When Books Were Shelved Backwards | [...]

  31. […] Mari writing in Shelf-Conscious for The Paris […]

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