Dusseldorf The general obsession with beauty does not even stop at the bookshelf. One sorts his literature by colour, the other may even select it accordingly. Is this the end of the West? A classification.
The question of all questions arises from the second book: In what order do the works come on the shelf? Which grading ideally combines function and form, i.e. order and appearance? The answer is: It depends.
Sorting according to about a dozen criteria is theoretically possible. On the one hand there would be cold, hard facts: the height, thickness and width of the book, weight and price, number of pages, year of publication and publisher. On the other hand, there are – for good reasons – the more common categories: genre, subject and author, and of course the title. In recent years, a movement has been established that gives priority to aesthetics: First and foremost, the shelves at home have to look good; the “shelfie” is the educated citizen’s new selfie.
In the 21st century, less gold-embossed dictionaries and complete editions of Shakespeare are considered to be particularly impressive. Instead, in the most minimalist of all furniture in terms of design and color – modern bookshelves are predominantly white or black, the maximum wood look is a touch of birch – color explosions should please the eye. Rainbows from novel spines.
With the corresponding consequences: If you don’t have a photographic memory for the spines of your books, you’ll find significantly less again after optimizing the optics. But at least more than the counter-movement that allegedly existed at least temporarily: #Backwardsbooks, in other words: all spines of books turned to the wall. Because of the importance of inner values, or something.
In case of doubt, this may be downright logical, if the collected works are only for decoration anyway. The fact that luxury hotels and bars have their libraries put together by specialized companies such as Ultimate Library (whereby the look is what counts) is all that matters. I expect, hope and wish for more from real people.
Do you know him? One lord of the castle says to another in his home library: “To be honest, they are mainly used as thermal insulation.” But such cultural philistinism is of course far from us fans of printed paper.
So how to proceed? First of all, a moment of devotion might be appropriate for the existence of our bookshelves in their seemingly inescapable form, which offer a maximum of analogue storage space and practically make collecting books possible in the first place. “What could be more natural in purpose and form than a common bookcase?” asks Henry Petroski in The Book On The Bookshelf, his definitive work on the history of the undervalued piece of furniture. “Vertically placed books on horizontal shelves – isn’t that a law of nature?” Of course it isn’t. Rather, early storage systems for the ancestor of the book, the scroll, mostly resembled wine racks, more rarely hat boxes or umbrella stands. For around 3000 years, this was enough for the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. From the 1st century onwards, the codex slowly became fashionable in the West, developing from stacks of wax tablets to stapled parchments to the final form: bound sheets of paper, better known as books.
The optimization of the associated shelf lags behind this development by many centuries. Because books remain so valuable for dozens of generations that they are stored in safes and chests, because they are mostly made by hand by monks. Bookcases did not appear until the Middle Ages, but the contents of these were invariably chained to prevent theft, which in turn necessitated voluminous integrated writing and reading desks.
With the advent of printing, the number of books exploded while their material value dwindled massively. Along with affordability, there is a growing realization that books lined up side by side are more manageable than stacked ones. The question remains: Which side forward?
Finally, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the chains hanging from the fronts of the shelves became superfluous; the delicate bindings no longer have to face the wall. But before they can actually be turned towards the viewer, a change of heart is required, explains Petroski: the spine of the book was long considered unsightly, almost offensive. The downright revolutionary lettering on the spines of the books makes them more attractive and identifiable at the same time.
One of the fundamental annoyances of the bibliophile is that it has not been possible to agree on a direction for this type of printing to this day. Wouldn’t it be nice if you only had to tilt your head to the left and not to the right when strolling along bookshelves? It would be nice, but it’s not in sight.
So kudos to the bookshelf, the foundation of every order. But how to sort now?
The first step should still be undisputed: The most basic subdivision is made according to subject areas in the broadest sense. Just as the instructions for heating and large household appliances have their own place, the folders for all the other paperwork, and in case of doubt also the literature relating to one’s own profession, so personal areas of interest can have their own shelves or at least shelf compartments. In my case, that would be the Lower Rhine here and New Zealand there, i.e. history, culture, language from this and the opposite end of the world. Some things related to journalism, of course – reports, portraits, essays, photography, infographics.
In addition, half a large Billy shelf, i.e. about 2.40 meters of shelf space, with basketball literature, one of the three compartments reserved for biographies: New Zealander Steven Adams is followed by the 2.31-meter book between legends Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant Mann Manute Bol, behind him soon Dirk Nowitzki’s former teammate Brian Cardinal: Limited in terms of play, easy to underestimate visually, yet extremely tough, which earned him the famous nickname “The Caretaker”… but I digress.
Who has more than maybe half a dozen of such areas of interest for which further subdivision by chronology, geography or the alphabetical order of their titles is either necessary or superfluous because of the compactness of the collection?
Me for example. Due to a penchant for products that made world or at least pop culture history, I own four books on the terrifying power of the Kalashnikov, five on the early start-up sports car DeLorean DMC-12, two handfuls on kits in general, and Lego in particular.
And one for each arm of the world’s most fascinating animal, the octopus.
Fortunately, the Scandinavian furniture discounter not only offers its classic in 80, but also in 40 centimeters width. One of my narrow shelves is filled with works by the American design historian Henry Petroski, who, in addition to the bookshelf, also exhaustively devotes himself to the pencil and the bridge. Many broad shelves are reserved for science fiction on the one hand and actual space travel on the other, others for surfing and the Wild West. And before you ask: Of course, I show my favorite pieces in their full width – i.e. with the front to the front.
In any case: The mountain of books that remains after this rough sorting is considerable. The fact that I don’t tear apart series of books or magazines, which are also “supplied”, i.e. localized, hardly changes that. So back to the core question: how to sort these books of all sorts of genres on every imaginable topic? (Sooner or later, of course, all attempts will fail anyway, the bookseller Martin Latham finds the comforting sentence in his work “Reading on Happiness”: “A little chaos in the garden ensures a good ecosystem.”)
In any case, you don’t sort by size. A hard-working assistant in the second-hand children’s shop around the corner recently came to this conclusion, after the work was done it dawned on him that in this context only one sorting makes sense: namely the order according to the recommended reading age.
For my holdings, too, I reject sorting by size as at most impractical (although surprisingly the British bibliophile Samuel Pepys, president of the Royal Society in the 1680s, swore by it given the 3,000 works in his possession). In most cases, only a robot would consider weight and price, publisher and year of publication to be promising criteria. The genre, however, should often have an order-creating effect, be it on the first level (all picture or poetry books, hidden object books or crime novels on one shelf) or within a specific subject area.
So when push comes to shove and needs to be sorted within the units of sense, all that’s left is good old alphabetical sorting – either by author or by title; What you prefer is ultimately a matter of taste.
More precisely, these two possibilities may remain intellectuals. I love the ribbon on the top row of shelves in my living room. From the dark red Cuba illustrated book to Leonard Nimoy’s pale orange-colored poetry booklet, the gaze sweeps across the yellow travel guide pastiche “San Sombrèro” to the turquoise photo book on the “perfect wave” Teahupo’o in Tahiti, over the gray moon craters to the blackness of space. That’s not very practical. But nice.
This brings us to the service part of this text. If you’re tempted to sort by color, please consider that many booksellers suffer from nightmares from customers who don’t know the title, author, or subject: “The book I’m referring to is red; Have you got that?” Retailer Booksbythefoot.com, meanwhile, aggressively offers its yard goods by color. There are almost 60 exhaustive color mixtures to choose from. Only lovers of dark blue tones are spoiled for choice between “city lights” and “starry night” as well as between “classic” and “modern dusk”. In addition, “Purple Passion”, “Baroque Dreams” and “Whispering Willows” and – yes, really – “Irish Stout” are tempting.
If, on the other hand, you want to give me something, that’s easy: I like odd books of all kinds. And I still need green ones.