A Chaos Theory for Bookshelves

35 mm film // by Gretchen Kast

By Francesca Morizio

I’m not neurotic about many things.

Dirty dishes in a kitchen sink drive me crazy. I try and keep my closet divided between work and non-work clothes, but beyond those I’m pretty normal when it comes to organization.

Unless, of course, we are discussing my bookshelf.

It started as a child. My parents, bless them, got me a huge bookshelf when I was too young to even read. I don’t know if I had some desire to fill the six foot tall three foot wide, three foot deep and five shelf unit, but I did. I filled it with books I memorized before I learned to read, with books I read when I was too young for them, with books I read and read and read until they came apart. Taped and paper clipped together, bound together with childhood imagination.

It wasn’t until I moved past reading the Harry Potter novels over and over again that I came across the problem of how to arrange my books. The Dewey Decimal system didn’t really work for my purposes as most of my collection is fiction, nor did the Library of Congress style of arranging texts. Not to mention that those methods of organization that seemed to be a bit contrived. Alphabetical by Author last names worked for a bit, but more often than not I binge-read: I read every book I can find on one subject, one time period, one moment, one central theme. Having to cross reference the historical fictions of, say, the Tudor Court is hard when the texts in questions were authored by letters far apart in the alphabet, or if I want to read contrast fiction styles across Peru from colonization to Vargas Llosa.

I find it more interesting to trace overarching themes in literature across geographic locations of the texts in questions, rather than necessarily who the author is. So The Enchantress of Florence winds up near The Divine Comedy even though Rushdie and Dante, as authors, seem to have very little to do with one another (I often do debate moving the poem into the hell/purgatory/heaven portion of my shelves, but the overarching metaphor of Florence as Hell always wins out over the fact that Dante is never physically in Florence in the poem). What links those two men is the city of Florence and all the tropes that go along with that specific place.

I, through a process I can only begin to hope to understand, have created a working way of organizing my bookshelf that, so far, has only failed me on a few rare occasions.

Ideally, of course, I will have a Beauty and the Beast-esque library, one with curving staircases and multiple levels. But until I find an errant Earl or cursed Prince, I’m stuck in the realistic world of book hoarders.

Roughly, I arranged my bookcase by the geographic content of the text, though not necessarily geographic authorship. After geographic groupings have been established, there is a rough grouping by plots, themes, or in an order that only makes sense if you’re inside my head. Thus A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is placed next to the Lais of Marie de France and Le Morte d’Arthur by Malory and near some Dickens and Doris Lessing’s novels about England (The Golden Notebook, etc. The Martha Quest series can be found in the Sub Saharan Africa section, further broken down by country. In Lessing’s case I have a section dedicated to Southern Rhodesia literature near my collection of South Africa literature published before 1994).

This system excludes the pile that I take to bed with me most nights and the stack of volumes I’m part way through that are constantly being cycled through my various purses, texts that end up between couch cushions and left on the kitchen counter or out on the porch.

The method to my madness stems from my belief that literature is as much as product of space and time as it is the mind that creates it. Yes, I’m a formalist and a structuralist at heart, but once I move past my first critical thoughts about the form/content relationship of a work I devolve into a postmodern frenzy of historicism, feminism and whatever other -ism is in vogue for me that week. For me, locationality matters; not necessarily in where the author is from, but where the work is taking place. Places are permanent, mostly anyways, and locations are characters in and of themselves. Even books that takes place in France is imbued with what constitutes France from a cultural, historical even a monetary perspective. Stories aren’t ever about just people, they are about life and interactions with the world. Places are what link stories together and whether I like it or not, any novel I read about Atlanta will be flavored by A Man In Full, so of course they should be near one another.

Maybe it only makes sense in the chaos of my mind, but, because I mostly eschew Authorial Intent, I’m completely okay with keeping books by the same author on completely different sides of my room. My books spill off the shelves and tumble in their stacks, but it’s beautiful chaos. Mostly organized, beautiful chaos.