Arranging The Books

Posted by on Nov 27, 2012 | 10 comments

We have six bookcases downstairs. The two glass-fronted ones in the living room hold the old books, the ones with tarnished gilt on the covers. Some covers are leather, some are falling off. There are four different early editions of the works of Tobias Smollet, the writer my husband spent a good part of his career writing about and editing his works. The works of Thackeray, Fielding, Maria Edgeworth. The pages are stiff, delicate, spotted. These books reside in our house in the category of memory. We don’t  read them: they stand for literature. They honor the past. The other one in the living room was my grandparents’ and holds many of their books, including some written by my economist grandfather. The others range from Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Tales from Shakespeare, an old Gulliver’s Travels, collected poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, to The Three Little Cottontails.

One downstairs bookcase holds random 20th century novels we haven’t been able to part with for no good reason. One big bookcase in Jerry’s study is arranged according to the history of literature, from Aeschelus to Norman Mailer. This arrangement is for my benefit, so I can look upon history and more or less keep it straight. The other two there are his, arranged in some inexplicable way that suits him.

My study upstairs was an attic and has a strongly pitched ceiling. So I have five low bookcases. Five years ago, when we moved here, I arranged my poetry books for the first time. Poetry books are thin, easily lost, easily slipped back between two others. So I decided to alphabetize them all, by author, so I’d know what was there. This was a long process and involved spreading them out on the floor like decks of playing cards. I decided to split them into poetry-by-women and poetry-by-men, for ease of location. This has been a good plan. I am aware how many more are by men than by women. This is a subject of a blog all its own.

I have a group of anthologies, a group of collections of essays on poetry by poets. . . . . oh, I’ll bore you if I keep on. One last thing: I have a bookcase with one shelf of Christian reference books, including the little white Bible given me when I was baptized, and a larger, now, row of Buddhist reference books. These represent the evolution of my vision of how things are, in general.

Arranging is good for the soul, at least good for mine. It helps me find things, which is a way of being aware of each object. It helps me see where I fit into the scheme that humans have devised. I know that books turn to dust, that the ones I write will turn to dust. Some have no doubt already been shredded or incinerated or are molding in landfills. No matter. Kindles and IPads are great, efficient tools. But what I plan to keep around me as long as I live are reminders of great thought, of those who aspired to greatness, of those who looked for Truth in all good faith and honesty.

T. S. Eliot would have called them objective correlatives. They stand for the convolutions and amazements of the human mind in action. They stand for the imaginary worlds we invent that sometimes actually point to the truth of things. At the end of  Four Quartets, Eliot wrote:

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.





  1. I cannot part from certain novels and non-fiction books even though I will probably never reference them again. Millie

    • I know, I know! I think we just want to have that reminder of how much we loved it. Or what it was like to read it back then. I’m not sure what it is, but Jerry and I both have trouble getting rid of books we’ve once read and loved. So what? We’ll just keep them!

  2. Last night I began a huge overhaul of the bookshelves, thinking that some kind of organization would help me reconnect with the poetry in our house. I began to read Linda Pastan, a poet I didn’t “get” when you were my mentor. This time I “got” it like electricity. I was excited to read your blog this morning! Where do you keep literary journals???? I’m thinking a stack in the corner.

    • I actually don’t keep literary journals. If I did, there would be no room to sleep in our house. I don’t even keep all the ones where my own poems have appeared. I guess if I imagined to be wildly famous someday, I’d save everything. The Univ. of Delaware has my drafts and stuff, but I just can’t be bothered to save journals.

  3. Fleda,

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to organize and what to do with the many books I’ve squirrelled away in 4 mismatched shelves and along the wall on makeshift boxes and planks. You have given me reasons to get to it!

    My books are indeed a part of me and my past and I hope. . .my future.


    • That’s a good way to put it. They are part of me. They’re in my head, of course, but not just that. The actual physical book is part of me, also. I’ll bet you find the poetry books hardest to organize, because they’re so small.

  4. Oh Fleda, this blog so resonated with me….been trying to pare down my books for months…been longing for some covered bookshelves so they would not get so dusty. I do like to see my favorite books and often have some displayed on tables…have given away most of my professional books when I finally realized that I would not work again as a professional speech/language therapist! I have also shared some of the books with my adult children…interesting to observe the books they chose…my youngest who claims she was a “forced Unitarian” as a child and wants nothing to do with organized religion, wanted my small, white bible that had been given to me when I was in Rainbow Girls as a teen!!

    • Hi Shari! I miss seeing you. We’re book people, of course, and just the sight of a book will bring back all the memories of reading that book. I have old paperbacks taped together that I used in college and in grad school that I still see particular poems as happening on those very pages. I imagine you do, too.

  5. Our home library is similarly sorted with different parts of the house containing different sorts of books–the architecture, home and construction books in the basement, children’s books spilling up into novels and essays at the end of the mainfloor hall, poetry on the top floor and separated by gender (and now I want to count how many are men, how many are women– for I believe they are nearly even!). Also, I dearly love “Little Gidding”–it is one of those poems–that section you quote in particular– that comes back to me on monumental occasions. I love the peace that is arrived at– and I imagine Eliot may also have had a similar set of theological reference shelves, with the Buddhist shelf growing later– long after his Christian conversion. But I haven’t heard his poem referred to as The Three Quartets– only ever Four– am I missing something there?

    • As I said, Jen, my brain is not working altogether well right now! I don’t know WHY I wrote three. Maybe I was thinking of the Three Little Pigs, or the Trinity. . . .I have fixed it, though. Quickly, before too many other people think I’m off my rocker. Thanks.

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