Diary: Jeff Deutsch on Organizing Books, i.e., Ordaining the Universe
How a bookseller orders their collection dictates the logic and serendipities of a bookstore’s unique browse. Alberto Manguel tells us that the Sumerians called catalogers “ordainers of the universe.” Noting that our own bookstore, Seminary Co-op in Chicago, shelved books on the history of religion in the anthropology section, Indologist Wendy Doniger remarked, referring to the store’s then general manager Jack Cela, “all our efforts to keep the two disciplines separate had failed. If Jack saw that they were the same, they were the same.”
Georges Perec, with a logic and playfulness characteristic of his Oulipian school, said of the art of arranging one’s books, “we oscillate between the illusion of perfection and the vertigo of the unattainable.” “In the name of completeness, we would like to believe that a unique order exists that would enable us to accede to knowledge all in one go; in the name of the unattainable, we would like to think that order and disorder are in fact the same word, denoting pure chance.” (Number three on Perec’s list of “Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die” was “arrange my bookshelves once and for all.”)
Clearly no unique order acceding to all knowledge exists. There are, however, certain axioms in the art of cataloging, for example: All classifications are somewhat arbitrary, despite their internal logic. Perec lists eleven ways for a reader to arrange their books: ordered alphabetically by continent or country, color, date of acquisition, date of publication, format, genre, major periods of literary history, language, priority for future reading, binding, and series. I have known readers who organize their books by the author’s birth year, date read, publisher, size, geography, or, of course, the classic method: alphabetical by author. Jonathan Swift organized his library in order to impress his visitors, expecting them to read the collection the way they might read a book.
All classifications result in evocative adjacencies. Alphabetization exists to help locate specific books. However it is imagined, the bookstore must ensure that the utilitarian can locate a book with ease. The layout of Seminary Co-op, though, is designed for those who want to be so encompassed by books as to feel swaddled in them. Or perhaps cradled in them, like Osaragi Jirō’s bed for his books, which is surrounded by bookshelves “at head and foot and then close on both sides.” As he writes in his zuihitsu, or “pillow book,” “The shelves are so full of books that I have only to stretch out my hand and it will fall on something I like.” And while he acknowledges the “innocent pleasure it is to experience the delight of nodding off while reading a difficult book,” clearly, using the bed to both read and nap, he has lost any sense of whether the bed is there for him or for the books.
Every system of classification has offers up serendipities. The progress from Toni Morrison to Bharati Mukherjee, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, Iris Murdoch, Albert Murray, Robert Musil, Vladimir Nabokov, and R. K. Narayan seems no less coincidental by virtue of being alphabetical. While a bookstore will likely have alphabetizations in given sections, though, there are endless refinements one might make. A philosophy section, for instance, might include the full range of the discipline, including popular titles, specialist titles, technical volumes, and primary and secondary literature. Or the categories might be more specific, helping the lover of wisdom make their way through epistemology, logic, ethics, metaphysics, or aesthetics, considering the branches of philosophy discretely. Or they might consider organizing by certain schools of thought: Platonism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Empiricism, Idealism, Humanism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism, say.
I like to imagine a bookstore’s philosophy collection classified by sections named for other books. For instance, we might create a system based on lost Aristotelian treatises, with sections like “Exhortation to Philosophy,” “On Being or Having Been Affected,” “On Controversial Questions,” “Solutions of Controversial Questions,” “On the Idea,” “Of the Desirable and the Contingent,” “Analogies,” “Propositions,” “Controversial Propositions,” and “Laws of the Mess-Table” to provide unpursued appositions that would delight the modern-day peripatetic.
Universal classification in any case is impossible. The bookseller is not bound by classifications defined by academic disciplines, the Dewey Decimal System, Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) codes, or the Library of Congress, but we do use them to inform assemblages that help readers find books. That is the sole purpose of the taxonomy. There is no grander statement about the types and terrains of knowledge.
And so a smart, intimate store like Phinney Books in Seattle maintains just two sections: “Made-up” and “True”—categories that authors like Claudia Rankine, Eliot Weinberger, Valeria Luiselli, and many more would defy. The sublime City Lights Booksellers, one of our finest bookstores, maintains sections like “Topographies and Somalogistics,” “Evidence,” “Radical Black Imagination,” “Belles-Lettres,” “Stolen Continents,” and “Muckraking.” McNally Jackson’s commitment to categorizing literature by geographical regions is even more specific than City Lights’ approach, from whom they gleaned the inspiration. They also have categories like “Phenomena,” “Of the Moment,” “Escapes,” and “How to Be in the World.” The booksellers can be trusted to build collections that stimulate an inspired browse, even if the categories seem odd at first glance.
All collections, upon reclassification, create new, felicitous pairings. Good bookselling requires a constant reevaluation of the adjacencies created by our cataloging principles. The legendary bookseller Paul Yamazaki, who has spent over five decades at City Lights, has said that “a bookstore is somewhat like an ocean—it may look the same, but it is always changing, if you are a careful observer.” Architect Stanley Tigerman, creating a new interior structure for Seminary Co-op when it moved from its basement home of over forty years, recognized the power of disorientation in browsing and attempted to re-create deliberately the original store’s accidental architecture, built as it was in a space that no architect or interior designer (or fire marshal, for that matter) would ever imagine into a bookstore. To hear him tell it, the idea of the Co-op necessitated conditions that would confuse patrons and cause them to get lost in the stacks. A few years before his death in 2019, he said that, in building the new home for the Co-op, he was trying to create “something that wasn’t perfect, that would … never be finished.” There is a wise ambiguity in the architecture of the sections, as there is in the organization of the shelves themselves, evocative as Wallace Stevens’s ideal poem, which, he tells us, “must resist the intelligence almost successfully.”
In 2015, we created at Seminary Co-op a comparative religion section and a Hinduism section, leaving the anthropology and South Asian history sections, respectively, just a bit more focused. William James, Mircea Eliade, and Karen Armstrong were in each other’s company, and our world religions wing, adjacent to anthropology and philosophy, now contained one of the oldest and richest faiths. Professor Doniger’s students now had their proper browsage.
No collections are final. As Borges wrote, “nothing is built on stone, everything on sand, but our duty is to build as if sand were stone.” Though the ground beneath us will shift, we present our current taxonomy in the spirit of a proposition, arguing only that this grouping will create interesting grounds of discovery. We, of course, know, as Manguel notes, that “every library is a library of preferences, and every chosen category implies an exclusion.” Our work is to select and assemble, making the discordant wilds of bookish inquiry manageable.
We booksellers hope to approximate an order and create pleasurable browsage. These are clearly complementary impulses. But we also know, as Manguel points out, that “whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader—the curious reader, the alert reader—to rescue the book from the category to which it has been condemned.”
Jeff Deutsch is the director of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstores, which in 2019 he helped incorporate as the first not-for-profit bookstore whose mission is bookselling. The Seminary Co-op Bookstores were Book Post’s Autumn 2021 bookselling partner. This post is adapted from his recent book, In Praise of Good Bookstores.
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