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April 30, 2005

The Folly of Alphabetizing...

I'll never understand folks who alphabetize their books. It's not that I don't appreciate the idea of imposing some order on the ever-encroaching floor-monster that is my library, but the method seems so very off. I acquire books at an enormously alarming rate. You think I'm joking, I'm not -- the government has retained a team of highly trained specialists to monitor, study, and reach conclusions based solely on my rate of literary acquisition. One of them had a nervous breakdown, the other two got divorces. It's really quite scary.

Because of my Amazon addiction and my dorm room's lack of bookshelves, my storage system is a bit off. My dorm overflows with tomes. I've taken over all the bookshelves in the main room, filled a closet, littered the floor, stacked my dresser, and generally replaced my roommates with paperbacks. The trunk of my car -- a hatchback, no less -- is layered three deep with books, a bit of unfinished business left over from when I moved out of Santa Cruz last June. My room at home also sports towering stacks of books, in addition to a few unpacked boxes where the lesser-known and seldomly viewed titles live.

The point is that I get a lot of new books. And I'm quite excited, when I have a non-dorm living space next year, to lovingly place each and every one onto the rows of bookshelves that'll turn my flat -- can I call it that if I'm not British? What if I was just watching Coupling? -- into some sort of urban, literate, labyrinth garden. And yes, I hope to have some sort of classification system. Maybe broad categories or something. But alphabetical? It'd never work. Assuming that every shelf save the last will be full of books, I'd never be able to buy anything that didn't begin with Z. Otherwise, I'd have to shift the last book in each shelf down to the next, all the way through to the end of my collection. To be clear, what happens if I buy an M? The M shelf is already full, so I have to move a book out of that shelf. But the next shelf is full too, so I have to place the just-moved book at the front (alphabetical order, after all), and then move that shelf's ending book down a level, and so on. It just wouldn't work, it can't.

Can it?

April 30, 2005 in Books | Permalink


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You really do have to learn and implement Dewey Decimal filing. Sounds like the local library could get some donations too. Barcodes, gotta love those barcodes......Said half in jest, but just maybe.

Posted by: opit | Apr 30, 2005 1:02:00 PM

Hey, I work at a wholesaler and we have to keep everything in part-number-order. When I started the job, I ran into a very similar problem. To make a long story short, buy about twice as many bookshelves as you need and fill each one to about half full. Then you will have the ability to add the new "M" into the half-full M-shelf. If for some reason you fill the M shelf, you can easily shuffle down to the N or up to the L. No Problem, Right?

Now you just need to find a place that can accomodate twenty to thirty bookshelves. Who needs a kitchen??

Posted by: Poppycock | Apr 30, 2005 1:05:01 PM

My books seem to be roughly organized in the order in which I acquired them, which makes some sense because I tend to be pursuing themes as I read, so they sort of end up being organized by category as well. I moved things around sometimes, to enhance the category effect, but it's basically chronological. (Is this the method of organizing records in High Fidelity? I forget.)

And no you can't call it a flat. If I can't, you certainly can't.

Posted by: ac | Apr 30, 2005 1:06:47 PM

But flat is so much cooler than, say, "efficiency".

Posted by: Ezra | Apr 30, 2005 1:23:31 PM

Library of Congress all the way baby!

Seriously, though, just leave a little space at the end of the shelf. That's how libraries do it. And if you think you have it rough, I had a summer job in a library once, and the only thing I did the whole summer was shift books.

Posted by: Greg | Apr 30, 2005 1:26:58 PM

Welcome to the world of the dear reader, dear reader. It is our lot in life to have more books than shelves, and to feel like our living spaces grow ever smaller as the bookshelves multiply.

Just to be contrarian, I file by topic, and then by size of book - hardovers first, followed by soft cover. Alphabetizing doesn't work and the Dewey decimal system takes too long to learn (never mind the more usefully set up LOC system). I do alphabetize CDs (singles separately from albums), and DVDs (by type - film, TV series collection, other). Magazines are filed together in chronological order (HA! Didn't even think of that, didja, bitches?). :)

Or you can sell, throw away, or otherwise dispose of your unnecessary books. Good luck with that. It's never worked for me.

PS, you can call it a flat, but people will call you pretentious.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 30, 2005 1:34:22 PM

I did my time in the Stacks, too, Greg; makes you appreciate any Borges "Library" story...
For some reason (probably just because it works for me), I shelve my stuff more-or-less chronologically/historically - i.e., 17th Cent before 18th cent - and fairly roughly by subject within that. Lit, history & philosophy, even science, rub shoulders amicably. There are Special Collections - art books, because they are odd/large format, for example - and the Culinary Corner (it's a big corner....). And there's always a Working Stack, which could comprise anything - just have to remember to find a place for those when you're done.
I do the same with music, btw.

Posted by: grishaxxx | Apr 30, 2005 1:41:30 PM

I'm at the point where if I add new books, I have to sell off old ones. There's just no more room to fit them.

I arrange more or less by subject matter. Screw alphabetical order.

Posted by: fiat lux | Apr 30, 2005 2:20:09 PM

The first thing is to recognize and accept (moving past denial) that nature of the disorder. No, not the book disorder. The mental disorder.

For unfathomed reasons, humans are collectors. The worst are the male variants. If it weren't books, it would be butterflies, coins or whatever.

In the past I've suffered from book disease, but I'm in remission - but this is an addiction, so I'm still recovering.

There must be a 12-step program for this, but I haven't found the steps. You sound ready to recognize the depth of the addiction, so make your own 12-step program and post the rules prominently.

Some ideas:

- Do a rough-cut calculation of the amount of money you have already invested, and marvel at what you might have done with this money. You could finance a political campaign, for instance.

- While doing the above, count the number of read and unread books in the collection. Calculate an estimate of how much time would be required to read the unread books, and consider if this is the best use of your time.

- Cultivate a 'benefactor' self-image, and carefully consider which organization might benefit the most from receiving an annual donation of your largess.

- Establish a dollar limit in your budget for annual book purchases, and track monthly progress under the budget. Save the receipts and total monthly, so the cost is always fresh in your mind.

- Establish a book-shelf limit, and don't even think about raising it. Some things in life must be subject to limits in order to realize freedom.

- Reserve some shelves for 'treasures' that must be preserved for future reference or pleasure, but be hard-headed when admitting new books to this category, while considering the value of each work to those in your benefactor org. Annually parse the treasures and consign some books to the donation category.

- Guilt works! Carrying around a pathology and knowing it reduces the urge when the guilt trip becomes daily. Oh, the illiterate children! The moaning trees!

- Annual cleaning. This is like the clothes closet. If you haven't worn the item in a year, it will never be worn again. Off to Goodwill!!

- Convince yourself that contrary to the received truth, not all addictions must be controlled by abstinence. Say the words control and moderation often when viewing your collection.

- Reward yourself and others for good behavior. Once you know how much you are currently spending, and how much you budget, spend some of the surplus on the most pleasurable activities in your life that involve others and not dead trees.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 30, 2005 2:21:22 PM

"Reward yourself and others for good behavior. Once you know how much you are currently spending, and how much you budget, spend some of the surplus on the most pleasurable activities in your life that involve others and not dead trees."

The problem is the addict's greatest pleasure is the substance. My husband promises over and over to stop buying books, and then starts sneaking off to buy them again. He refuses to part with any of the 40 boxes of books in the garage. It's pretty hopeless, really.

I love books of all sorts, but tend to keep my buying under control and pass along those I'm done with. For books in "circulation", they're sorted by subject on the shelves. For my books in storage, by subject. For the huge science fiction collection, mostly my husband's, by author alphabetically in the storage boxes. It's the only way to find them.

Posted by: donna | Apr 30, 2005 2:31:58 PM

Another way to help control the book addiction (add to my list above):

Move frequently! Nothing helps more than being faced with moving books from one living place to another. The folly of books in boxes and huge amounts of space for shelves becomes obvious.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 30, 2005 2:59:25 PM

I have a written inventory of all my books, but my shelves have all kinds of systems--some by size; some by color; some by category; a couple of shelves of suggestions to myself re what to read next.

Posted by: Raenelle | Apr 30, 2005 3:18:15 PM

I sort by topic, then alphabetize. The reason is that since I, like you, am really alarming about books, I would long since have become unable to find any of them if I didn't have some sort of order; and what's the use of having books if you can't find them? The key to the M is that you need, always, to have more bookshelf space than you currently need. (Obvious in any case. I can't figure out where to put the next bookshelf just now, so piles are cropping up in various places, and all the dining room chairs are taken.) If you have more than enough space, then you just leave space at the end of each shelf. Eventually, of course, you'll need to buy more bookshelves, but then you just need to figure out where in the order to put them for maximum effect. I can't remember ever having put them at the end, and shifted all the books around; they're much more likely to go in the middle of US History, say, and absorb books both from what comes before and from what comes after.

Posted by: hilzoy | Apr 30, 2005 3:18:44 PM

I think JiminPDX is being too severe. No serious reader has read everything on their shelves. I challenge him to pass up a great title on the remainder tables at (since we're both local) Powell's, for example.
I have acquired and divested (only at times of absolute crisis and scraping bottom) many, many books - it's agony to give them up, and when things go well again I will replace things I miss the most. There's also the stuff I know I'll only read once, and those can be recycled painlessly - that's what a Powell's is for, after all, sharing the wealth.
But, really, compared to any other addicition I can think of (e.g.,booze, smokes, weed...), book buying is nothing. Legal, cheap, and in a pinch, 20 cents on the dollar for resale.

Posted by: grishaxxx | Apr 30, 2005 3:34:05 PM

"Sarah Cynthia Ezra Klein Stout/Would not throw any books out..."

Posted by: Uncle Mike | Apr 30, 2005 3:34:33 PM

It's nice to learn that others have the same addiction. I'm about to outgrow a big, old 15-room farmhouse. i'm learning that the local library loves donations. Going through the books gives me the chance to decide which books I just can't live without and which ones I want to read but don't care if I own. I'm improving.

Posted by: Nora L. Ingram | Apr 30, 2005 3:41:30 PM

I went through the same thing with my records (back in the day) and CDs. . .I finally gave up and got an ipod (no more shelf adjusting worries).

Posted by: Ol Cranky | Apr 30, 2005 3:47:39 PM

I think book organization methods, like the iPod Friday Random Ten, tell quite a bit about a person. Although I haven't enough data to construct linked typologies just yet. (Alphabetizers listen to opera and heavy metal? Subject categorizers like folk music?)

That said, I also think that just as one's taste in music often evolves over time, so does one's method of organizing books. I am a subject clumper myself, but as more books are acquired sub-categories emerge and even break away from their original grouping. My advice is to start with some rough approximation of categories that are meaningful to you (history, current politics, Bush bashing, etc.) and throw books on shelves, in piles, where ever, grouped according to your chosen categories. If it isn't right, you'll know it fairly soon.

As for the space problem... it will probably always be a problem. You are a bibliophile, and I personally think that is a fine thing. You will get rid of some books from time to time because of space needs or just the realization that you don't want/need that book any more. But do be careful. In spite of the well-meaning advice from some to discard, discard, and buy less, (and move, which does inevitably result in some books going bye-bye), there are a lot worse things to have too many of. And I have discovered in recent years that some of the books I let go of over the years are now very hard to come by. Who could have imagined some Kurt Vonnegut books would go out of print? How can it be so hard to obtain a copy of "Dangerous Visions" in really good condition without spending a fortune? If you love a book, don't let it go.

Yes, I know I'm being an enabler!

Posted by: suzan | Apr 30, 2005 3:52:33 PM

Organize? Are you mad? Do you have any idea what sort of joy there is in rediscovering a book you bought long ago and that then vanished into the bookshelf dimension only to reappear as if by magic?

On the other hand, I did find myself with three copies of "The Tempest" recently, so there are drawbacks.

Posted by: Incertus | Apr 30, 2005 5:43:57 PM

suzan is right about stuff going outta print - I gave away many many paper copies of James McCourt's "Mawrdew Czgowchwz," only to find it gone when I wanted another of my own - until the NYRB re-issued it (bless them, btw - they are rescuing tons of wonderful titles).
And suz - I love the notion of typologies, but I do NOT alphabetize AND I listen to opera - so there goes that one!

Posted by: grishaxxx | Apr 30, 2005 6:48:42 PM

Well, as someone who morphed from a sci-fi fantasy nerd, to a politics geek, somewhere around the soph. year of college, I actually have two "collections." Down stairs are the 3 book cases worth of random sci-fi and fantasy, arranged sort of by author. Upstairs are the political and sociology books, arranged mostly by "here is an empty space."


Posted by: Dan | Apr 30, 2005 6:59:15 PM

Speaking as someone whose books are 90% about the Middle Ages. Topic. If no particular topic, then series. If no particular series, then publisher. This latter makes sense for academic presses, since, say, all Cambridge UP books tend to be about the same size and shape.

Plus it looks really cool to have a shelf that's three feet of Penguins.

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Apr 30, 2005 7:09:13 PM

Anyone here ever see "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," the Blier movie where the guy had a complete collection of Livres de Poche, arranged by number? Proud of it, too!
Per Karl, if I'd gone for a Ph.D. in a field, I would have made that a professional collection, and separate from the rest (might,just maybe, meld them later, but I doubt it). For the dilettante (in the good sense), it's the browsing library that keeps on giving delight.

Posted by: grishaxxx | Apr 30, 2005 7:42:21 PM

I organize my nonfiction by subject and then within subject by usefulness- i.e., how often I open it. The subjects themselves are ordered roughly how fundamental the topic is.

Posted by: TJ | Apr 30, 2005 11:28:32 PM

For alphabetical, you have to leave some space on each shelf to accommodate new purchases. That's how it works in bookstores, where I have had the good fortune to have worked. Of course, sometimes there is no space, and then you do have to move everything down to make space. Which is irritating.

Posted by: John | May 1, 2005 10:37:19 AM

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