Thursday, October 30, 2008

On the library as autobiography

Every library is autobiographical.

The idea persists even today: our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been, our books hold the share of pages granted to us from the Book of Life. By the books we calls we will be judged.

What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice. Our experience builds on experience, our memory on other memories. Our books build on other books that change or enrich them, that grant them a chronology apart from that of literary dictionaries . . .

From Alberto Manguel’s The Library At Night

Alberto Manguel’s fine book, The Library At Night, prompted thoughts about how the books in my home library are shelved.

The largest part of my library is devoted to fiction. Books are shelved alphabetically by the author’s last name and also, moving from left to right, from the oldest to the most recent. Poetry is mixed with novels. Perhaps this an oversight and poetry should be kept independent from novels and short story collections, but I like to keep an authors work together ( Margaret Atwood, for example). However, biographies of writers are generally not found with the authors’ own works. Instead, author biographies, bibliographies and fiction anthologies are all found at the end of fiction. And, as much as I like to keep an authors work together, I don’t keep fiction and non-fiction together.

Two genres follow – mysteries and science fiction. I suppose they could be shelved among the fiction but I like to keep them separate and I have enough of each to justify this separation. I also keep the works of Louise Erdrich separate. I have more than 150 items devoted to Erdrich. She takes four shelves.

Sports are kept as a group. Baseball first, representing the largest assortment of sports books. Books on running – marathons, track and field, etc. – follow baseball and then an assortment of other sports. I’ve tried to minimize books on football, soccer or basketball.

Two shelves are devoted to Kansas, another shelf contains memoirs and still another shelf is comprised of books on two small, but important collections – the blues and food. An assortment of graphic novels are scattered about. The works of Bill Bryson and David Halberstam have their own place of pride along with a few non-fiction works that I especially value, including Ivan Doig’s works of non-fiction.

That’s largely the way the downstairs library is configured. Upstairs, on the ground level, there is one large book case. It includes all my Dickens and Edith Wharton, a complete run of the Penguin Lives series, all the American Presidents series issued to date by Times Books and an assortment of signed books – mainly by political figures -- and a few books that are marginally fine press. There’s also a small collection of books on Viet Nam and my folios – principally graphic novels. Also on this main level are two books by Thomas Berger -- Reinhart’s Women and Reinhart In Love. They are given prominence because, well, Reinhart is my last name and I like the titles.

Upstairs are three book cases. One contains paperback books, largely early science fiction. One book case contains Presidential biographies and an assortment of American history. The final book case contains a few “religious” works, such as C.S. Lewis, books on adventure and nature, books on books and a small collection of books devoted to poker and to journalism.

My collection is autobiographical in the extreme. In part, because I collect what I read. But, also, because – to a greater extent – the non-fiction reflects my interests. My fondness for comic books is reflected in the graphic novels. My interest in food, the blues, poker, baseball and running (30 years as of September 1) are all reflected in my “mini” collections. I think too that my fondness for Dickens, Cather, Wharton, John Gardner, George Pelecanos and Louise Erdrich say something about me. What it says, I’m not certain.

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