Saturday, April 20, 2013

How Do You Organize A Home Library?

I've recently finished Jacques Bonnet's small but excellent book, Phantoms On The Bookshelves.  Absolutely no question, Bonnet is a bibliophile.  He owns a library of some 40,000 titles.  That is a lot of books.  Phantoms On The Bookshelves is a short book, coming in at just over 100 pages.  It's full of anecdotes, aphorisms, and is really a long love letter to all book lovers.  He also has managed to drop fantastic quotes among his stories and reflections; every few pages you read such greats as:

"With few books, but learned/I live in conversation with the dead/ And I listen to the deceased with my eyes" - Francisco de Quevedo.

"[Writing is] great, very great, in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances  of time and space." - Abraham Lincoln

"Some people are fond of horses, others of wild animals; in my case, I have been possessed since childhood by a prodigious desire to buy and own books." - Julian The Apostate

"Libraries, like museums, are a refuge from old age, sickness and death." - Jean Grenier....and many more.

One of my favorite parts of this slim volume, are the pages detailing the challenge of organizing 40,000 volumes.  He starts by describing Georges Perec's attempt at categorizing books, which Perec said could be done by:

by continent or country
by colour
by date of acquisition
by date of publication
by size
by genre
by literary period
by language
by frequency of consultation
by binding
by series

Bonnet categorizes his massive library by literature, non-fiction, and then the arts.  And within each genre he has it broken down into sub-genres (e.g., literature is then subdivided by language; art is divided into music, cinema, photography, etc).  But he spends many pages ruminating over the challenges categorizing so many books and the myriad of ways one may go about doing so.  Each to their own is his essential message, but best of luck if you have thousands of volumes to get in order.

Phantoms On The Bookshelves is a great read.  If you own lots of books, or someday wish to build your own impressive library, Bonnet will certainly leave your mouth watering.  Bonnet is a Frenchman, and many of the works he mentions are foreign works, most of which I've never heard of.  Not that they may not be excellent reads, but I suggest you bring a pencil and paper to write down the many titles he names and look them up later and see if any interest you.

A portion of my library on the living room floor in 2008
My library is still somewhere around 800 titles -- maybe more, maybe less.  But I'd say that's a good guess.  In 2008 I tried to organize my books but space has always been limited.  My wife's books always make their way among my books and I still spend too much time trying to find a particular title.  I envy Bonnet, who says that even among 40,000 titles he still knows where to find a particular book.  Someday I'll have a house large enough to hold my library of 800?  2,000?  10,000? titles.  

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