I recently moved house. I moved a great distance and, while I was searching for my new home, all my worldly goods were placed in storage. When I was packing everything up, I imagined that I would miss certain items; my favourite armchair, my own bed, my kitchen pots and pans. I certainly did miss some of these things, but above all – and to a degree I had not anticipated – I missed my books. I have several thousand, many of them my own, some the ones I have inherited from a family of habitual readers and writers. Being without them felt like losing my tools. I missed the ease of access to my box of tricks; the books that inspire me, that provide information, reference and triggers for my own writing and the work I do to encourage others to write. For several weeks I felt beret of my books.
Now I have them back, all in one place, I am taking delight in arranging them on my bookshelves. For the first time in my life I have brought them all together. Nothing is consigned to the attic or the cupboard under the stairs. Every book I own is in the house. I have given some thought to how they will be arranged. I toyed with the idea of organising them in the order in which I first read them, but quickly realised that this would be the path to madness. For one thing, not all of them are mine, not all of them have been read by me, and in some cases – I have discovered – I have more than one copy, purchased or acquired at different times. I have a couple each of Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby, and four copies of Great Expectations. I was surprised to find that The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam features three times. One edition, bound in dark red suede, is small enough to hold in the palm of my hand. The other two are paperbacks, from the 1960s and 70s, judging from their psychedelic cover art.
The obvious system is to arrange my books alphabetically by author and, within that, by the order in which they were written. This has thrown up some enjoyable collisions. I have a whole bookcase devoted to poetry. Maya Angelou rubs up against Matthew Arnold. Seamus Heaney provides a buttress between Hardy and Homer. Wordsworth and Yeats glower towards the end of the bottom shelf. I am about half way through the fiction, with Bennetts Alan and Arnold rubbing shoulders, and Ian Fleming and Janet Frame sitting back to back. Food writing and travel will be for the dining room, life writing for the spare room, and history and documentary for the office alongside the dictionaries, creative writing handbooks and other tools of the trade.
Am I forcing my books into patterns they would rather resist? The system breaks down where a book is simply too tall to fit on its designated shelf, so I am having to allow flexibility. It may be asking too much of myself to be a librarian in my own home, but it feels satisfying to handle each book as it emerges from the big brown cardboard boxes, and to place it between its neighbours in a new home.