There is something about organizing my library that feels like putting my mind in order. Not so much my mind as my memories. Holding a book and turning it over in my hands, I recall the story, the characters, or sometimes just the message that it imparted. It is probably yet another futile attempt at controlling the chaos, but this big summer project lifted my spirits. Listening to Pamela Paul speak about her ‘Book of Books,’ and acknowledging my incomplete Goodreads profile, I set about taking an inventory of my library. Not just that but culling, discarding, curating and cataloguing. If my fitness watch captures data on every move my body makes, why shouldn’t I aim to account for mental exercise?
I am blessed to have a room in our home that can be called a library. It was the feature that sold us on the house. It is an English styled 1920s addition to an 1820s Beacon Hill townhome with copper skylights, a fireplace, and of course, many bookshelves and cabinets. I have always loved libraries, physical libraries. A good portion of my new novel is set in a boarding school library. As a research associate at HBS in the 90’s (pre useful Internet) I did the bulk of my work at Baker Library. As a senior at Smith College I adored my coveted carrel in the Art History Library. Studying and writing and learning among books was, to me, the epitome of the college experience. The order of a library and the abundance a collection represents resonates with my mild OCD and desire to accumulate knowledge.
When we moved in 15 years ago, I intended the books in our library to be shelved with some order, but in an inevitable rush to unpack boxes alongside the all the other family activity, I did a haphazard job. Or maybe it wasn’t that, but a rapid acquisition of books and their hasty transfer from bedside table, to purse, to bookshelf that I was guilty of. But over the past six years, the disorganization has saddened me. And then it felt like one of those projects too big and overwhelming to begin. Doing it the right way wouldn’t just entail organizing the books, it would be a curation of the shelves themselves—which objects would retain the honor of resting among the books? This beautiful room had fallen victim to my laziness, to clutter, to my initial sense that it was okay to put just about anything on the shelves because they would take a lifetime to fill. Well guess what?
It‘s been a summer project in a warm room without much A/C. It is a labor of love. I have enlisted help. Someone who can look at the books and objects without emotional attachment and help me to simplify. It is the type of cleaning or fresh start that makes an old home feel new. There is more to do beyond the books, there are the files, the old tax returns, the photographs… but one step at a time.
The first question was whether to organize by author, genre, or subject matter. I have seen pictures on Instagram where people organize books by color. Crazy. My brain is asking for order. I am tired of standing in the middle of the room, scanning the shelves, searching, certain that I own a book. It’s like when my husband stares into the half empty refrigerator looking for the butter right in front of him.
There is an emotional lightness I’ve achieved from this work and also a confidence I’ve gained from the survey. I have read a lot of books. I do appreciate a wide array of genres. I did read many of them aloud to my children. Not just volumes but series of work. I will pass some of these on, with love to younger mothers. I hope to read to my grandchildren someday. They will be born in an age where books will be relics, feel old fashioned – they will sit in my lap feeling like I felt when my mother taught me to knit a blanket, but at least I will be confident in knowing just where to place my finger on the story I wanted to read.