The Organization of Your Bookshelves Tells Its Own Story

From The Atlantic:

My father loved books more than anything else in the world. He owned about 11,000 of them at the time of his death, in March of 2021, at 83 years old. There were books in his living room and bedroom, books in the hallways and closets and kitchen.

Sometimes I stop in the center of my own home like a bird arrested in flight, entranced by the books that line my walls. I live in a small Manhattan apartment, and I, too, have books in the living room, the bedroom, the hallway, the closets. Often, I stare at them because I’m puzzling over their geography. I wonder if I’ve placed any book in the wrong spot, according to an emotional map I’ve made of my bookshelves. As I gaze at the titles, the associations come tumbling out. Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs is next to a biography of Patrick Dennis called Uncle Mame, because Williams and Dennis had many things in common: Pathos. Cruel fathers. Spectacular female characters. A Dictionary of Yiddish Slang & Idioms is next to Heartburn because, however secular Nora Ephron was, her humor comes from deep within her Jewishness. The Lord of the Rings is between Time and Again and Rosemary’s Baby because I like how they form a triumvirate of fantasy stories that have nothing in common save my personal opinion that they are the finest of their genre. (Many would argue that Rosemary’s Baby belongs in horror, not fantasy, but my system allows for the blurring of these lines.)

And then there’s the shelf above my desk. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that it’s where I keep my favorite books. A more esoteric logic is at work. In About Alice, Calvin Trillin wrote that his wife had a large envelope marked important stuff, in which she collected letters the children had written her, records of their accomplishments, and other ephemera. She seemed to know what belonged in that envelope on raw instinct. So it is with the shelf above my desk. Here are the books that speak to some part of my sensibility—my youthful daydreams, the worlds I once imagined for myself. The Princess Bride is up there—I read it in a single day when I was 12 years old. “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” Who could put it down after an opening line like that? Also on this shelf: Birds of New York Field Guide, because I used to fantasize that my newborn would one day be a junior member of the National Audubon Society. Next to that: Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers, a long-ago gift from my mother that embodied her high standards of kindness and etiquette.

My books about writing are in the center of the shelf, because writing is what I do at my desk. They make me less afraid to be alone with my keyboard. Among them is On Writing, by Jorge Luis Borges. Yet this book is not there because it is about writing. It is there because of my father.

My father loved Borges. I remember him reading aloud a passage in which Borges expressed his admiration for how “physical” English is. It had ways to describe motions through space, he said, that were more keenly expressive than those he could find in his native language, Spanish. My father read the passage with sensual care, the way a gourmand enjoys a bowl of freshly harvested peas (M. F. K. Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets) or the way James Beard uses brisk rhythm and precise timing to achieve the optimal texture for scrambled eggs (James Beard, Beard on Food). My father’s joy in Borges’s words spread gently across his face in a smile that tugged at his lips and lit up his eyes. When he read aloud, you knew, deep in your bones, that you were learning a kind of catechism.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Is PG the only one who wondered how this was chosen for the magazine?