Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 08 Mar 2019

On the shelf

The recent death of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld generated a series of obituaries that noted the fact that he was an avid book collector (and reader). This was something I already knew and so it wouldn’t have normally made me linger over any of the media coverage. However, what I hadn’t anticipated was the accompanying photographs showing Lagerfeld with his books and the quite extraordinary way he arranged them on the shelves. If you haven’t seen any of coverage or these promotional shots, let me try and describe it for you. The large open plan living room is shelved floor to ceiling and two thirds up there is also a gallery. The books are arranged on the shelves predominantly lying flat in piles rather than in the traditional upright position – although every now and then an upright book is placed between the piles to provide a boundary between them. The overall impact is itself a work of art with the books taking on the appearance of coloured building block or bricks in the wall.

It’s a striking decision which, it seems to me, has more to do with the aesthetics than with practicability – perhaps that shouldn’t be surprise given that he designed for a living. But it did make me think about how we store books on our shelves and to especially think about how you do this when you’ve got a pretty big collection and when it’s easy to lose sight of what you’ve got, sometimes for years on end.

All book collectors have their idiosyncrasies when it comes to shelving their books. I’ve read of people who are so meticulous about order that they have devised their own special version of the Dewey Decimal numbering that is used by libraries. I’ve also read of those who order their books by height, by colour and by maintaining a strict apartheid between hardbacks and paperbacks. All these options strike me a pretty crazy.

I have some sympathy with the random approach – no system, just stick it on a shelf or floor where there’s a space. Whilst that appeals to my inherently lazy side, I do recognise that this creates two problems – the fact that it becomes almost impossible to find anything and that your ‘collection’ appears to have no coherence. For those of us who think that building a library is in some way laying bare to view some quintessential part of our soul or identity, presenting others with a shambles is tantamount to admitting that the inside of our heads looks the same.

Then there are those collectors – like Alberto Manguel for example – who take an entirely more cerebral approach to their bookshelves, grouping authors together by historical relationship or through membership of specific philosophical traditions. This is laying out your learning and erudition on the bookshelves, creating what is in reality a physical mind map. And that is all just a bit too intimidating for me.

Of course, the two most popular methods of organising bookshelves must be the alphabetical and what you could call the ‘author grouping’ method. Those who have the space to accommodate a pure alphabetical ordering system must be few and far between. Whether you alphabetise by author surname, last name or by book title (what about books that begin with ‘The’ or ‘A’?), such a lot of space is required for this approach that unless your book collection is very modest, you’ll soon have to abandon it – not least because it’s unforgiving when it comes to introducing new books into the collection. There are always physical limits to how far you can just ‘shuffle things along’ to make an appropriate alphabetic space for a new arrival.

So, ultimately, I’ve always plumped for the ‘author grouping’ method – simply trying to keep books by the same author together. It ends up being the least frustrating system I could cope with and makes spotting what you’re looking for comparatively easy, especially if the author has written several books and they form an identifiable block. I’ve found this to be a system that only really goes off the rails if you try and introduce into it additional refinements. My wife, for example, has a very sizeable collection of children’s books which she keeps predominantly on the ‘author grouping’ principle but every now and then she tries to add in another filter – just Christmas Books or just Classic Fairy Tales – and the system goes into melt down. Does a book stay in its author grouping or get lifted into the Christmas books or the Fairy Tales?

Believe me: that way madness lies.

Ultimately, I love the unexpectedness of other people’s book shelves and their organisational decisions. Part of the fun of scanning other people’s shelves is finding out not only what’s on them but how they’ve been ordered and stored. If you really want a peep into someone’s personality and character don’t get distracted by all those bogus personality tests – just go and look at their bookshelves.


Terry Potter

March 2019