While we wait to see our collective fate decided I’ve spent the past few days rearranging my deckchairs, I mean books. As you can see, I’ve installed (okay – my esteemed other has installed) my fantastically trendy Umbra Conceal hidden bookshelf.* Oh yes. A drop in the bucket, but still.
Following the sudden influx of many new items into Baroque Mansions, due to the closure of the Brockley Annexe, there was really no choice. The single act of moving a bookcase into the hallway to make room for a mirror has had a seismic effect. Then there was rationalising the stereo equipment, getting rid of the broken amps, moving the doll’s house, re-hanging the pictures, and promising Mlle B I would clear the shelves in her room.
The place is looking potentially much better now, if you don’t count the stacks, heaps, dusting cloths, stepladders and bags of rubbish – and once I get finished it will be even more better.
The thing is, and maybe this is a little like politics, you know, it’s what you do with all the different categories. How you define them? When is it a single mother, when is it a memoir, and thus eligible for the biography section, and when is it merely random scribblings that amount to little? (Why do I have David Mamet’s fascinating volume of essays, Writing on Napkins, in the screenplay section? And anyway, does Mamet belong in theatre or film?? With Tom Stoppard or Sidney Lumet??) Many of these decisions are being made on the basis of size. There is no good deciding a book must go with x-y-z only to find it’s an inch taller than the shelf. It’s coalition tome.**
With all this in mind I have rearranged the living room, where the fiction and art books are, to make room for one more shelf as long as I swop them over, so the art books make use of the big bookcase (actually an old school cupboard) which has Tall Shelves. The fiction was swallowed up on them anyway. Everything is alphabetical, starting with Amis, until we get to around Rick Moody – from him onwards, from Lorrie Moore to Zinovy Zinick, I have had to use the first two shelves of the big case anyway. And I’ve dismantled by Henry-n-Oscar section; there’s nowhere now for my six 1928 volumes of Wilde in disintegrating blue-grey boards, or the six-volume Leon Edel biography of James. But James’ novels, aside from the firsts, are in with the general fiction, and the firsts (Daisy Miller! so exciting) are on a small shelf of small old things. My complete Burney and the 1826 edition of Johnson are safe on a top shelf.
So, the arty books are divided up into categories, which segue into one another with ease and grace, and will end with the bottom shelf of children’s books and picture books – after all, illustration – and many of them are here on account of their illustrations in any case. And the old comic books, carefully bagged in plastic, including our vintage family Tarzans.
It’s an exciting life, isn’t it.
The script of Les Enfants du Paradis is taller than the shelf, and there is no room in biography for Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries series. (Can I get away with calling it letters? There’s room on the letters shelf in the other room. But no.)
That’s without mentioning the poetry magazines, but I think I’ve worked that bit out okay. They can go in the hall.
Then some smartaleck friend of mine asks what I think of people arranging their books by colour! Srsly I think that is a solution for people who have maybe not very many books, or do not need to get at them v often for purposes of research, say, or really care what’s inside them at all. Design geeks who lack the sense of the ridiculous, and have whole shelves of ironic old Penguins they will never want to use. Even sadder design geek students, who may have whole shelves of the new, retro-styled Penguins off a 3-for-2. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.
Then again, I’ve shelved several series of books next to each other, apart from the “main” volumes – that is, I have Milton. But in the other room I have my Nonesuch Milton, next to my Nonesuch Hazlitt and Blake. And, to balance it out, a series of New Directions poetry annuals from the early seventies, anyone? Fifties hipster anthologies with witty line-drawings? This is partly because it looks nice to keep like with like, and also partly in compensation for other shelving issues. So Ms Baroque is hardly in a position to throw stones.
It’s going to be great, one way or another: the rationalised home, the machine for living, the external self. Shelf. The pile of Things to Get Rid Of is fast growing. And don’t ask me about poetry anthologies yet; they are looming. The only questions now are: just where will the necessary cuts be made? And who will arrive at a workable solution first, me or them?
* The book on the bottom is Sonata Mulattica, by Rita Dove, which surprised me one day by arriving in the post. Norton is publishing over here now. The title is a little alarming at first, no? But very clever – and it is tangentially about Beethoven, indeed and a mulatto violin prodigy called George Bridgetower who lost the great man’s favour over an alleged insult to a lover. The Sonata of the title is what is now the Kreutzer Sonata, which gives you some idea of what Bridgetower lost. They played the first performance of it together. Professional favour and romantic revenge: the story, with its tragedy – and let’s face it, the idea of failure through no fault of your own, the success-slipping-through-the-fingers, is very near to any writer’s heart – is gripping, but I don’t think the poetry is, really. It’s a shame. It’s an outrageously ambitious project. And it’s possible I’m more sensitive to anachronisms than a lot of people…
In one way the book has a lot in common with According to Queenie, Baryl Bainbridge’s novel about the daughter of Dr Johnson’s confidante, Hester Thrale. I loved According to Queenie, though, she seemed to just get something right. It’s not great literature but it’s good. In fact, the more I think about this the more I want to get Sonata Mulattica down off the magic bookshelf and write it up properly and quote bits for you. Though this snippet from the NYT will give you the picture:
“this bright-skinned papa’s boy/could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame/straight into the record books.”
Hmm. Well, it’s all very interesting.***
I put it on the bottom because it’s just so exquisitely pretty, with its eighteenth century fillips, and the wonderful turquoise and cream. Even the back of it is lovely to look at.
**[sic] The books must learn to get along.
*** And THAT is the big danger of sorting out the books!!