The Books On Our Shelves...

The books on our shelves arrange themselves. A visitor to our house might wonder what perverted system of order we're using, what method of organization. It's not like a library; there are no numbers on the spines, no categories. Nothing is arranged alphabetically, by genre or by import. We've lived together for two years now, but from the moment I moved in our books have co-mingled, kept each other company. There was never any question of separating our collections. It would be futile at best, disastrous at worst; we both saw this (contrast with the experiences of other book lovers, for whom a marriage of libraries is a Major Event--I start to think the Man and I are stranger than anyone thought possible). A separation of books would be like a separation of selves; it would be akin to sleeping in separate beds. A false intimacy. Two years later the books have shifted, as books tend to. Very few are still where they started out on the shelves; and some don't make it on to the shelves at all, but lie in piles by the side of the bed or on the desk. We have many books. This haphazard system ought to perplex us; but the funny thing is this: mid-sentence, sometimes, one of us will need a very specific book, maybe one we haven't looked at properly in years, and we always know where it is. We know exactly what books we have and don't have and could, if pressed, probably tell the story of every single volume in this house (that one bought second-hand in Boston, that one stolen from an ex-girlfriend, that one borrowed and never returned to a friend, that one purchased from an anonymous Waterstones somewhere). It's as if we both have this massive, mental catalog, shared, full of shifting information.

But this is why I think there is an order, after all; this is why I think the books arrange themselves. Because the way they are means that whatever you are looking for, whatever you need most to read at any moment, will suddenly pop out at you. In any room of the house you will find yourself looking at a wall of books, or at least a pile, and if you're desperate enough, one of them will start to shimmer, or to call to you, will demand all of your attention, and when you pick it up you will realize that yes, of course, this is what you were looking for--even if you hadn't known you were looking for anything at all. Maybe it's because of this, which I found in the book I hadn't realized I desperately needed until I slid it from the shelf last night: "the meaning of things lies not in things themselves, but in our attitudes to them."*

*Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as quoted at the start of A.C. Grayling's The Meaning of Things