New realisations from moving old books


Reorganising the living room bookshelf gave me a panoramic wide angle view of my relationship with books and reading. At one level, I regretted my love of books. Alcoholics among you know will know the sensation of hitting rock bottom intimately. It also felt like meeting long lost friends. The pleasant surprises leading newer, better understandings and relationships.

The regret came from dealing with the physicality of books. Some, like the Geoffrey Bawa books have the girth to qualify as murder weapons (if used from a sufficient height). Even the slimmest volumes must be puffed up the stairs to avoid creating back spraining stacks. I used to brutally sell off books to avoid dealing with heaving boxes of books. Yet there was always a body of survivors.

Space they occupied in the overstuffed living room shelf had to found in their new homes. Namely two minimalistic bookcases with limited shelf height configurations and even less space. My collection ranges from generously of proportioned art books, fragile childhood era Tintins, and a spectrum of other books varying wildly around the size of paperbacks. That made organising the books into any sort of order into a headache – specially for a dim wit like Cerno. The only practical solution was to grovel to the new spatial order and put them wherever they fitted.

As a result Cicero’s biography is now sitting next to the Bukowskis. Funny Boy is jammed next to a yellowed Philip K Dick. Cinnamon Gardens was moved to another shelf and amongst Kandyan history due to a few excessive millimetres. At least I almost managed to keep the art books together. Compromises had to be made of course. A lushly photographed work on ancient Sri Lankan rock paintings just happened to be around the same height as a book of banned Robert Mapplethorpes. The book on strange late war German aircraft designs landed next to the Abstract Expressionists because it fitted in perfectly.

Once the sneezing from the dust settled, I thought the whole thing was over. Yet while I was lying on the heat pack reeking Wintogino (moving books and sprains are tragically linked), the realisations crept in. Oddly enough, it started with the Tintins and wondered over to the Asterixs which I had rarely flipped though as an adult. Details glossed over in childhood were deliciously fresh. Made me think how my perceptions of the world had changed.

Bukowski remains an old favourite — specially since Green Tea Diaries has been quiet. I used to prefer the hiku splendour of his later poetry. Now I have come to enjoy the punch of his prose works (eg: Post Office, Factotum) as well as the earlier poems. All because I flipped through those neglected pages between fittings. I thought I got over of my juvenile interest in Nazi WW2 aeronautics but I was wrong. Even if there was anyone interested in the cockpit layout of the BV141, I’m not selling.

Why? Just like the strange affinity I’m starting to notice between Cicero and Bukowski, it’s hard to pin down. Particularly when the whispers of thought have yet coagulate into something specific for words. It will certainly take another post as this one’s rambled on too long (thank you for reading this far btw).

The realisations have an unexpected deliciousness to them. Makes the sweaty brow work of book shuffling worth while. With eBooks this sort of experience will be replaced by algorithm (people who read this also liked…). I have unscientific doubts about the richness of that experience. It makes my interest in other people’s bookshelves feel even stronger. So what sort of journeys has the chaos/order of your bookshelf taken you?

Oh yes, Happy 2012!

* The specific titles of the books mentioned have been blurred for security reasons.

6 comments

  1. Happy new year to you too Mr. Cerno! Hope you have a wonderful year ahead!

    As for bookshelves, I am a terrible book hoarder and consequently still have everything from the first book I ever owned (Ben, the Painter Bear I think it’s called) and ladybird books to all the books I’ve acquired over the years. Moving house meant that the parents set aside an entire room for them, so they are organised at the moment (I go by theme rather than author) but the more books I binge buy, the tougher it is to maintain any order.

    Perhaps you will treat us to a photo of your collection?🙂

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  2. That’s why I switched to ebooks a few years ago. No other way to feed the habit while still being able to see the floor.

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  3. Vindi: Sounds like YOU need to post a pic of your massive mountain of books. Sounds like its a more interesting pile🙂

    janusis: Couldn’t agree with you more! The only thing eBooks and paper books lack it time for me to read them😐

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    • Ah, cue my favourite pessimist German philosopher, Schopenhauer. I’m sure I quoted this to you before in some post:

      ” Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.”

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  4. I understand what you mean about t6hose Bawa books, although my Malasekara is easier to wield and would be effective at a shorter range.

    This topic is so massive that it deserves a London Review of Books length essay on it, but briefly, everything you said relates ultimately to the physicality of books, as the relationship we have with physical things that we own. To own 500 books is to have 500 realtionships, to own an e-reader is to have one relationship with that object, that what I feel anyway.

    My latest adventure was shipping the entire contents of a 2 bedroom flat from London to Colombo and it was all packed in to 49 boxes over a third of which were books I think! Have you ever tried to clear anything from the ports? Well it’s Kafka-esque. (overused phrase I know but one day I will tell you the full story – it involved an entire day and several departments that did not talk to each other and many strange small payments and carrying around multiple copies of receipts from desk to desk. I moved about 25 times between three desks.)

    Anyway, they were most perplexed about the sheer weight of my shipment, they were convinced that I was illegally importing large amounts of ‘electronic goods’.

    I think half of the total costs of getting my stuff across was due to the books. But to leave them all behind, or sell them off in the hope of buying them again here was too difficult to imagine. It’s not just the book itself, what about the notes written in the margins, the notes from friends, bus tickets/postcards/etc used as bookmarks, all that personal history in each item.

    I totally agree about the new relationships that are formed when you move books. As much as I tried the old ones didn’t come together in the new shelves, the old in-jokes and perversions didn’t work or I had forgotten them! But these things have a way of working out, books seem to find their natural place given enough time, I don’t stress too much about it.

    As far as storage goes, that age-old civilisational problem is now solved, you can digitise everything and the cost and the space taken gets smaller each year. The next big problem – and that where the serious research is on – is proper retrieval and the genius of real physical items is that there are multiple indexing systems existing simultaneously: physical locations on shelves, physical locations in the house, the arrangement of books in multiple topic/genre/etc order that overlap and contradict!

    I rambled on enough, sorry

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