Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Bookshelf As A City

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Consider the bookshelf.

At first glance, just a receptacle for books, to make sure they’re at hand as and when needed.

Pierce this prosaic veil, and you’ll find that each one is a city. Some are large, some small; some are baroque, some unpretentious. Some are sparsely populated, little more than overgrown settlements; others are acquiring the lineaments of a metropolis. And some – the most fascinating of the lot – are sprawling, teeming with ideas and exchange, drawing more and more into their ambit.

Such bookshelves contain inhabitants from all over, near and far. Of these, there are those that speak softly, going about their business in a hushed manner; those that are boisterous, claiming more space for themselves; and those that rest content with the influence they have. Jostling and pushing, they rub against each other, asserting their individuality but, against the odds, comprising a single unit.

The hinterland is constantly being claimed and re-claimed. Volumes are squeezed into crevices and arrangements are reshuffled: those that stand side by side can, at short notice, be asked to lie in stacks. Sometimes, those of odd size and shape find themselves next to each other, with the rest, rejoicing in their regularity, looking aslant at them. The read, the unread, the borrowed, the bought, the loved and the skimmed occupy common ground. Encroachments are frequent, first, at the borders, and soon spilling onto adjacent sites such as tables and surfaces meant for other household objects.

Some sections are better cared for than others. Books squeezed into the back – facing the ignominy of double shelving – can be neglected, and others hard to reach lie undusted, despite best efforts. Sometimes, an area out of favour for years will find itself in fashion again almost overnight; typically, this happens after intrepid exploration throws up forgotten yet fascinating volumes. To those who look upon this city for the first time, it appears to be no more than a riotous jumble; others, aware of its neighbourhoods, find it mesmerising.

At times, there are departures. With age, some volumes can no longer withstand cramped quarters. Others are found wanting: their contributions are insufficient, their charms have waned. With regret, these are despatched, but the crush of those wanting to take their place is so great that gaps are instantly filled. The city returns to satiety.

Organising and planning this landscape, then, is no simple matter. Uprooting and re-laying out established sectors can be complex and time-consuming, a task that’s often well-nigh impossible. There are those who say that a bookshelf’s residents ought to be arranged by theme; others insist that the alphabet is a better guide. Some segregate in terms of colour and others do so by age. There’s no denying, though, that the bookshelf, like the city, is another example of the immutable law of entropy. Systems sink into disorder and randomness; the keenest eye and the most indomitable will are laid low.

After a while, then, attempts at organization cease and growth is organic. The most one can do is to try and create loosely affiliated areas -- within which there will creep in elements that are unaffiliated. With time and patience, the city will grow familiar and a sense of where and how to travel will arise. As Walter Benjamin wrote when unpacking his library, “What else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

There will be meanderings down detours and alleys, and if the gods of serendipity are smiling, one will emerge from such excursions with not just the sought-for volume, but also others that promise riches. In the words of Margaret Mead, a city is “a place where there is no need to wait for next week to get the answer to a question, to taste the food of any country, to find new voices to listen to and familiar ones to listen to again.” Quite so.

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