There are few activities more pleasurable than transferring one's collection of books, theretofore coacervated all hobson-jobson in unlabelled boxes, to a newly-acquired set of shelves. Thanks to the munificence of neighbours, my wife and I have recently landed, gratis, no fewer than five bookshelves, of various sizes and shapes. Some of them are even antiques. I spent the evening turning over the piles sprawled out from upturned boxes, unexamined since our departure for Arizona three long years ago. As each item surfaces, I can recall exactly the time and place of its purchase; and so the experience as a whole recapitulates my life, and also, in a peculiar way, the structure of my mind.
The collector Robert Cotton (1571-1631), whose enormous library—or at least what remained of it in the wake of a great fire (1731), the remnants nonetheless replete with priceless treasures—was later donated to the national collection, arranged his books on shelves marked by the busts of Caesars. Thus, our sole surviving copy of Beowulf was (and still is) designated 'Vitellius A.xv', denoting that the manuscript was found on the top shelf (A) below Vitellius, fifteen along. (One rather suspects that Vitellius was too nugatory a Caesar for a text of such importance.) At any rate, I have decided to revive the practice, only using great literary figures instead of Roman clown-emperors. Thus, atop the first case I have placed a small bust of Goethe, presiding. I have yet to pick my next hero.
The Warburg Library is organised to maximise suggestiveness, all chronological and alphabetical plans having been abandoned, so as to provoke thought (and, dare I say it, often confusion) by unusual, though rarely irrational, juxtapositions. I like the idea. Indeed, it is difficult to know quite how to sort. As with translations, all solutions fall short one way or another. So I tend towards a loose order, with books grouped by size and vaguely by subject, though arranged for a pleasing curve on each shelf. I wanted to get Substantific Marrow onto the shelf of literary essayists, but there was no room, so instead I put him between Duval on Rabelais, and the copy of Mineshaft magazine I picked up in San Francisco. (I offer Emerson the choice of switching Mineshaft for an Aporia Press reprint of a few Thomason pamphlets (1642-61), collectively entitled Anomalous Phenomena of the Interregnum.) I have Hegel next to Lewis Spence and Extraordinary Popular Delusions, which, I'm sure you'll agree, is a fitting apposition. Phineas Fletcher's anatomical epic The Purple Island is next to George Chappell's neo-Rabelaisian Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, which in turn neighbours an old, peeling Béroalde de Verville. Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters makes a cute companion to Christopher Ward's Gentleman into Goose.
Some conjunctions just amuse me. The Book of Mormon sits next to Josiah Royce's Principles of Logic; a biography of Mao next to a two-volume Leben und Werke of Schiller, in Fraktur, kindly given to me by my dear uncle; the works of Molière beside The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí; und so weiter. I'd like to get an octavo Shakespeare to put next to the contes of Voltaire, just to spite the pair of them. At the moment Voltaire's next to Swift and a 1906 Kommersbuch, which is almost as good, I think.
The shelf above the Loebs and other classics is too small for almost any book, so for now I have left it empty. Perhaps in shelving, just as in jazz, and Chinese painting, the notes you leave out count just as much, if not more.
The 200-odd books on these new shelves account for about 20-25% of my total collection, by my estimate. It is mostly second-tier material; although I refuse to have anything on my shelves that I dislike. (There is, of course, plenty that I haven't read.) I once read—damn if I can't remember where—about a French collector so determined to possess a perfect library that he would buy the Works of an author, cut out all the bad bits, and have the book rebound. Now that's my kind of collector. The ordonnance of these shelves is not perfect yet. It needs some tweaking. But it's almost there. I have heard the human body with its DNA compared to a vast library in which every book is the same. I like to imagine that when all my books are assembled in one place, perhaps at the end of my life, and placed in the correct order, I will have disclosed myself to the world more perfectly than in any book or conversation—shemhamphorasch.
Update: As it happens, I stumbled within a week across the reference to that French collector. My mind had embellished the matter, from Matthew Arnold's essay on Joseph Joubert, referring to 'the treasures of a library collected with infinite pains, taste, and skill, from which every book he thought ill of was rigidly excluded—he never would possess either a complete Voltaire or a complete Rousseau'. My version, as usual, is better.
Update #2: More book collections assembled here. Mine is the smallest, but then, it's quality that matters.