When I was growing up, I wanted only two things in a future house: a swimming pool and a library. I never thought much about style, size, decor, or even location, location, location. I just wanted a pool so I could swim daily laps and a library like the one Professor Henry Higgins had in My Fair Lady.
Remember that library? The one where Rex Harrison paces, ponders, and tries to sing about the perils of “letting a woman in your life”? Misogyny aside, that library was to die for. A couple of stories high with a spiral staircase between floors, it was a paradise of polished woodwork and wall-to-wall gold-lettered books, globes, busts and other erudite knickknacks, oriental rugs, a fireplace, and a plethora of plump armchairs and pillows.
Professor Higgins’ library even included luxuries you might not expect in a library like a gilt bird cage, a baby grand piano, and a gramophone, as well as enough space to agitate, cogitate, and perhaps even dance all night. It was just the kind of library I wanted for my own, though perhaps I would update it with a computer and modern sound system. It was a place I could read curled up by the fire in my slippers or write the world’s next great novel.
Who am I kidding? I wanted even more. Over the years I had crossed paths with some of the world’s most majestic libraries, including Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, the University of Chicago’s Harper Library, Baltimore’s George Peabody Library, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress. These high-ceilinged palaces of aging paper and dust, skylights and chandeliers, only fueled my outsized library longings.
As it happened, I did end up with a pool in my life. But I never got that library, or at least not that library of my dreams. For a while I thought I was getting close. In fact, if you loosely define a library as a collection of books, I suppose you could call our whole house a library. Over the years we have bought, borrowed, found, appropriated, and inherited a weighty collection of books—so weighty that we have filled more than one moving van near to capacity with book cartons, negotiating in various interstate moves to pay by volume lest paying by the pound bankrupt us.
With very few exceptions, once a book enters our home, it never leaves. My office alone is overflowing with books on science, medicine, history, and writing. The living room is choking with novels, poetry, philosophy, classics, art, and music—not to mention an entire book case devoted to evolutionary biology and social psychology. The hallways, family room, kitchen, and sunroom are crammed with books on business, religion, anthropology, filmmaking, gardening, cooking, economics, and travel. Innumerable books of unclear provenance camouflage the floor of my husband’s office, our nightstands, and just about every surface in every room.
Even the basement is unspared from book creep. There we have still more sagging bookshelves, some bearing my father’s old science fiction books, excess music and philosophy tomes, and mildewed paperbacks we can’t quite let go. Beside them are boxes upon boxes of old children’s books and textbooks, but only the ones we bothered packing. There are still three bedrooms upstairs crammed with beloved books that remain unshelved by children who grew up and left home.
Some of the rooms in my house even look, vaguely, like libraries, including my office, which devotes an entire wall to floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. While there’s no spiral staircase, I do have a ladder that slides from shelf to shelf and can be climbed to peruse the top row. The living room, too, seemed almost predestined to become a library when we discovered that the bookcases from previous houses fit across one of its walls perfectly, as though made to order. These shelves became perfect places to keep novels in alphabetical order, just like a “real” library. Together with the room’s piano, these packed shelves loosely approximate that expansive library of my dreams.
But neither my office nor the living room is the same as a real library. Nor is a household of books. This is largely because, unlike a real library, we as a family have several organization systems going at once, creating a degree of chaos and inaccessibility that no real library or librarian would tolerate. What we have amounts to a house of free range books, not a library.
The issue can be traced to joint ownership, and, particularly, the joint ownership of books—which, in my opinion, is an issue that ought to be added to lists of top marital problems. The problem is that one person’s organization is another person’s chaos, a corollary to the well-known maxim that one’s own mess is a “neat” mess. Indeed, it turns out that a budding home librarian, just like a budding writer, needs a room of one’s own.
In our case, the issue is that my husband likes organizing books by whatever idiosyncratic topic he’s researching at the moment, topics that are personal to him and shift when his interests shift. In contrast, I like organizing by more traditional subjects: fiction, poetry, medical history, American history, classics, religion, travel, and so on. This means that our systems of classification clash when a book I would place in “American history” ends up on his “constitutional conventions” shelf or a book he thought belonged in “evolutionary psychology” ends up on my “science writing” shelf. And none of this even begins to account for the books in the kids’ rooms or packed into boxes.
When we first got married, my husband wanted not only to categorize our books his way but even wanted to label each bookshelf by category with yellow post-it notes. That may sound vaguely library-like, but to me smacked of as much trouble in the library as had Colonel Mustard and his candlestick. I wasn’t proposing tagging each of our books with a Dewey Decimal number, but the idea of having yellow flags waving from every shelf or separating Schopenhauer from Nietzsche appalled me.
I can’t just blame marriage and family, though. I can’t even be consistent myself. Some of my books are organized by subject and others not at all. I even have a shelf or two devoted to books relevant to current writing projects. I also like organizing my fiction by author’s last name, which makes it considerably easier to find novels, but simply cram all the American history books onto a few isolated shelves. In theory, it would probably make sense to organize all books alphabetically within categories, but I have to admit that I am never going to get around to doing this.
Perhaps I don’t deserve a library, certainly not one that the likes of Professor Higgins would respect. I am simply too disorganized.
I think I’ll just be happy with the pool. And living amongst the books.