Book Shelves

This is going to be a a bit rambly, and about a kind of niche, specific thing, which has, possibly, been eclipsed on the internet by newer or more important things. Here’s what I want to say: people can shelve their books however they please. This #hot #take is brought to you by the virulent reaction to the “shelve your books spine in” decor suggestion that swept the internet a month-ish ago. If you haven’t heard of this backlash, honestly that’s probably for the best. Basically, there was a large reaction on twitter that boils down to “it is morally vacant to shelve your books with the spines facing in” or “if you have books shelved spine in, it means you never actually read”.

I’m going to be a full-fledged Master Librarian in  few short weeks (God help me), so I have some expertise in the world of books, and I want to tell the world that there is no morally superior way to shelve your personal book collection. I’ve been thinking too much a lot about this lately, and I have some thoughts around my larger “shelve your books however you please” admonition.

Book shelves are performative. Choosing where to shelve what books and how they are displayed is a performance of all of the things we associate with books. This goes beyond performing “well-read” to include how knowledgeable and wise a person is and beyond that to all the stuff you see in those “date a reader”-esque memes. Readers are empathetic! Readers have an active inner life! Readers love to curl up with a book on a rainy day! While this is a monolithic view of what reading “is”, it still has an impact on how we choose to shelve our books. Along with this, interior decoration in general is performative, and taken in combination with book-performance, it can easily become a sensitive and value-laden subject.

Considering the ideas that are attached to book-performance, it makes sense that seeing books shelved in a way I consider “bad” or “wrong” would cause a reaction. I feel like – and this is especially applicable on twitter – there is often not time on the internet to take an intervening meta-thinking (you thinking about your thinking) step in between an initial reaction and a contribution to the conversation. Here’s an example of what I mean: for a very long time I was vocally opposed to people shelving their books by colour. I would say that it was a bad way to shelve books, which implies that I thought the shelver wasn’t a “serious reader”. Of course, I shelved my books in a different way, and so I was “better” than the by-colour shelver. It took literally years for me to take a step back, examine the deeper implications of what I was saying, and realize that a) it is none of my business how people shelve their books, b) if books are findable, the shelving system is working, even if I don’t like it, and c) the way I shelve my books is just as much of a performance as shelving them by colour is. I needed to think about my thinking before I could realize that I was in the wrong.

It is important to question everything and hold on to the good, and I don’t think the idea that shelving books a certain way is morally better than shelving them another way is a good thing to hold on to. When my books were shelved basically willy-nilly with no discernible order, I could still find the book I wanted. If I shelved books spine-in, I’m sure I could adapt and be able to find the book I wanted without too much trouble.

I’ve been talking about shelving as a finding strategy, but there’s a pretty obvious other use of shelving, which is decoration. I have two bookshelves, one in the guest room and one in the living room. The guest room shelf has the bulk of my books on it, and they are shelved alphabetically by author last name because that’s the way that makes the most sense to me for finding the book I want. The shelf in the living room has my pretty books and pretty bookends on it, arranged for their looks rather than function. I’m performing literacy in different ways on each shelf, just like I’m performing it differently through the books scattered around my nightstand. What’s the difference between me choosing fancy cloth-bound books for my living room shelf and another person choosing spine-in shelving for their display area?

Basically, for a personal collection, the Dewey Decimal system is not better than shelving your books spine-in, and vice versa. And I should know. I’m a Librarian.

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