by Francesca Mari
I knew a kid in college who wanted so desperately to produce a book that he couldn’t stand the sight of their spines. He stacked them—ten or so brown and black books, library hardcovers—in his dorm room, titles to the wall, lips facing forward. He didn’t really buy books, either—at least I don’t recall that he did—but he never passed a bookstore without entering to read. These same stores have since displayed his books in their windows.
“‘You can tell how serious people are by looking at their books,’” Susan Sontag told Sigrid Nunez, long ago when Nunez was dating Sontag’s son. “She meant not only what books they had on their shelves, but how the books were arranged,” Nunez explains. “Because of her, I arranged my own books by subject and in chronological rather than alphabetical order. I wanted to be serious.”
There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.” In Sontag’s case, a very rigorous self. And, of course, that’s just the sort of self someone anxious about his aspirations might shy away from. “A self without a shelf remains cryptic,” Price notes. It’s like the straight-A student who says he hasn’t studied for finals: if you haven’t confessed to caring, no one can consider you to have failed.
There’s not a lot of anxiety about keeping libraries in this collection, however, because the adults featured—Junot Diaz, Steven Pinker, Gary Shteyngart, James Wood, Claire Messud, to name a few—are all solidly successful. Price’s interviews are less about each writer’s affairs and encounters with individual books than his or her shepherding of the whole herd—what’s treasured, tossed, bought twice, allowed to be lent. The interesting questions focus on each writer’s feelings about intellectual signaling and methods of overall arrangement. In other words, the stars of the pictures aren’t the books but the shelves.
As it turns out, for a great deal of their history, shelves were much more haphazard than they are today. Before they even displayed books, they supported piles of scrolls. In the first century BC, Atticus loaned Cicero two assistants to build shelves and to tack titles onto his collection. “Your men have made my library gay with their carpentry work,” Cicero reported. “Nothing could look neater than those shelves.”
But around the time the codex emerged in the first century AD, open shelves—which now housed two clashing forms, the long cylindrical scroll and the flat rectangular codex—began to be considered hideous. Texts were sent into hiding, stored in armoires and trunks, which were convenient for transporting books, but not for accessing them.
For the next fourteen hundred or so years, books, as Henry Petroski, a professor of civic engineering and history at Duke, writes in The Book on the Bookshelf, were shelved every which way but straight up, spine out. Engravings of private studies show books piled horizontally, standing on the edge opposite their spine (their fore edge), as well as turned fore edge out.
In the Middle Ages, when monasteries were the closest equivalent to a public library, monks kept works in their carrels. To increase circulation, these works were eventually chained to inclined desks, or lecterns, thus giving ownership of a work to a particular lectern rather than a particular monk. But as collections grew, surface space diminished, and books came to be stacked on shelves above the lectern, at first one and then many. The problem, of course, was that two books chained next to each another couldn’t be comfortably studied at the same time: elbows knocked; shackles clinked and tangled.
Hence the innovation of vertical storage. One book could be removed without disturbing the rest. Yet the transition was gradual. Books in monasteries retained their chains for some time, and many leather covers, particularly in private libraries, protruded irregularly, tricked-out as they were with embossing and jewels. Those books that did stand were oriented with their spines to the back of the shelf.
Sometimes an identifying design was drawn across the thick of the pages. A doctor of law just north of Venice named Odorico Pillone had Titian’s nephew, Cesare Vecellio, draw the fore edges of his books with scenes befitting their content. Other times a title label flagged off the inner edge of the cover or was affixed to the chain.
The first spine with printing dates from 1535, and it was then that books began to spin into the position we’re familiar with.
Despite the proliferation of affordable books with printed spines in the intervening centuries, the gold standard of shelving, the built-in bookshelf, didn’t become prevalent until the Depression. Edward Bernays, the man who sold women on smoking and invented “public relations” in 1923 with a course at NYU and a book called Crystallizing Public Opinion, was hired by publishers to hasten book sales.As Petroski notes, he deployed famous public figures to proclaim “the importance of books to civilization and then convinced architects, home contractors and interior designers to build homes with bookshelves, believing, ‘where there are bookshelves, there will be books.’” Two decades later,The New York Times was putting out a dollar magazine, The New York Times Shows You 65 Ways to Decorate with Books in Your Home, celebrating the cheering effect of a wall of the publishing industry’s lithe and colorful new covers.
Now we long for these slatted walls. They are, in James Wood’s words, the adult “show shelves,” in Jonathan Lethem’s, the object of childhood longing (and they were always to me a symbol of intellectual and economic well-being).
The cognitive psychologist and pop-science writer Steven Pinker and his wife, novelist Rebecca Goldstein, create theirs out of white smart cubes, which Pinker also employs in his closet to color code his shirts. Time critic Lev Grossman’s are the object of loathing—“my damn divorce bookcases”—while the comic novelist Gary Shytengart prizes his for adding a “sense of drama to the living room.” That is, a purely aesthetic drama.
Junot Díaz keeps every book he has ever bought (even if it means having to do so in storage). Pinker prunes every few years, while the novelist and critic Edmund White frequently buys books to write an essay and then dumps them all after it runs.
“To be weighted down by things—books, furniture—seems somehow terrible to me,” Claire Messud says. And it was this very concern—the mental burden of being anchored by books, the cost and bother of moving boxes yet again, and the flattering idea that a donation could do some good—that led my boyfriend and me recently to shed more than two hundred titles.
My boyfriend was ruthless. He chucked a book if he thought it’d be easy enough to get again for a dollar. From him, Housing Works got Nabokov (The Gift), Hemingway (a second copy of In Our Time), Ishiguro (A Pale View of the Hills), and Ozick (The Pagan Rabbi, which, I’m sad to say, snuck past me).
I’ve always felt an obligation to keep any book with which I’ve had some sort of relationship, even if it was an insignificant one—an assignment for a short review, for instance. Over time, these bad and mediocre books began to stand on my shelves as reproaches—Was I fair? Did I do the book justice? Whom did I hurt?—and I was glad to send them off. But I kept most else, especially if I’d scribbled in it. My annotations—“!!” or “Hahah” or “Bleh”—are asinine, but I’m fond of them. Analyses can be recooked, but these grunts fossilize an initial reaction—how I responded to Notes from Underground at eighteen (“Meh”) and then three formative years later (“WAH”).
I put the survivors on a few new Billy Bookcases. (IKEA has sold more than twenty-eight million, and I, for better or worse, own four.) They went up like all my other books, in no particular order.
Someday I’d like to change that—but I couldn’t go through all the effort just to be seen as being serious.