Bookshelves, according to Perec

Bookshelves, according to Perec. Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

As I type this, 10 books by Georges Perec sit neatly above my head, in alphabetical order. The 20th-century French writer was one of literature’s greatest eccentrics, famously writing an entire novel without using the letter ‘e’ (A Void, translated from the original La disparition) as well as a memoir, in which ‘e’ is the only vowel used.

Perec’s authorial oddity was fuelled by loss: he was cruelly orphaned by the age of nine, his mother sent to Auschwitz, his father killed in combat. But he also wrote on a range of subjects, from Ellis Island to Parisian consumerism and, for the last eight weeks of his life, a crossword puzzle for French newspaper Le Point.

His work is riddled with the notion of ordering things: his novels are filled with exhaustive itemisation of the worlds they depict; in Thoughts of Sorts he writes essays dedicated to making lists. In 1981, he gave a broadcast on French radio of all the things he “must do” before he died. Subsequently published, it swerves from the aspirational (“Live in a hotel (in Paris)”) to the banal (“Acquire various household appliances”) as well as that familiar space in between: “Arrange my bookshelves once and for all”.

We never know if Perec did sort his books out before his untimely death, at just 42, of lung cancer. But he did write about it. As the title would suggest, ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books’ is a short and practical essay in bookshelf practice, and makes irresistible reading to those who enjoy spending time around books.

While written in 1978, it makes a timely read in 2020, a year when bookshelves have suddenly been put on quasi-public platforms. Spotted in the background of Zoom calls, beamed into everything from work meetings to news programmes, the science of their composition has never been more closely scrutinised. So I plunged into Perec’s essay to see what I could learn.

From the off it transpires that I’ve committed a grave error: one’s books do not occupy shelves so much as a “library”, which, Perec defines as “a sum of books constituted by a non-professional reader for his own pleasure and daily use.”

But while Perec’s opener may suggest an air of grandness, the rest of the essay is pleasingly relatable: one’s library can exist, he says, in several places in the home, including,  but not limited to, “the bog”. If one plumps for the sitting room instead, it’s likely to share space with such items as a “hi-fi unit” or “television console”. Those feeling a little more, well, Pinterest-y about it may want to adopt some flourishes, putting books on “the steps of a library ladder, making this unusable (very chic)” or “on a piece of furniture set at an angle and dividing the room into two (very chic, creates an even better effect with a few pot-plants).

So far, I have picked up a few Perec points: there are houseplants here, as in many a millennial home, and also have a tatty old wooden ladder, painted a jaunty green, that I fetched out of the bins a few months ago. It is used for the purpose of putting books in the “library” (which occupy the living room), but is far too unstable to hold books – hence its bin-based origins.  

But what about the nitty-gritty: the order in which books can be arranged? Here Perec offers several, ever convoluting options. Among them, “alphabetically”, “by continent of country”, “by major periods of literary history”, “by date of acquisition” and, zut alors! “by colour”. Could Perec really be condoning that most provocative of book arrangements, the rainbow shelf?

As for the author himself, he admits that “nearly three-quarters of my books have never really been classified”, but spends his time in a kind of happy, if haphazard, book hunt. “[I] may spend three hours looking for a book without finding it but sometimes having the satisfaction of coming upon six or seven others which suit my purpose just as well,” he concludes.

And what of my own “library”? Well, it remains intact: the 10 Perec tomes sit between those by George Orwell and Sylvia Plath. The main shelves in my home are alphabetised, as insisted upon by my library-sharing partner, one who, in Perec’s words “exalts the virtues of the tabula rasa, the cold efficiency of the great arranging”. I, however, prefer “a good-natured anarchy”, and thus let chaos reign around the other bookshelves: those dedicated to art books (done purely on aesthetics, although not rainbow-based ones), the shelf downstairs of gardening books (roughly by subject, understood only by me) and the shared “to be read” bookcase, ordered by heft.  

And actually, this seems to be alright by Perec. He points out that no single form of classification is “satisfactory by itself” – at least for a home library. Rather, it’s the quirks that we instil in our bookshelves, from the wholly irrational to the obsessively pedantic, that make them loveable. “In practice, every library is ordered starting from a combination of these modes of classification, whose relative weighting, resistance to change, obsolescence and persistence give every library a unique personality,” writes Perec. Or, in other words, they’re your books – put them where they make you happy.

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