Arranging books on memory shelf

Recently, in view of an impending visit from my father-in-law, the first since the pandemic began, my husband and I decided to tackle our books.

Published: 07th August 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th August 2022 09:40 PM   |  A+A-

Image of textbooks used for representational purposes. (File Photo)

Image for representation

Recently, in view of an impending visit from my father-in-law, the first since the pandemic began, my husband and I decided to tackle our books. Before I get to the nitty-gritty of the tumultuous operation that followed, a word of explanation.

My husband and I are both writers and we spend most of the money we earn in our writing lives on books, often the result of a blinding sequence involving money we don’t really have, books we don’t really need, rainy afternoons, bookish mornings, and bookshop window-displays. His collection tends toward his areas of expertise: economics, defence, history, and geopolitics. (And Tolstoy).

Mine is mostly fiction and narrative non-fiction, with a smattering of graphic novels. He owns a ton of mathematical books; I have more than a passing interest in cookbooks (which are more read than cooked from). As you can probably guess, with modern-day constraints of space, the preponderance of dust in our cities and the lack of impulse control in people (by which I mean in me), it is all quietly, but most certainly, implosive. 

Witness our living quarters: there is a tall stack on every single flat surface in the house; the revolving bookshelves I have collected lovingly from antique shops (by basically selling one kidney, I should add) screech every time they are revolved; the short walk from our bed to the bathroom door offers several landmines that must be carefully evaded; the dust that puffs out every time I pull one book out of a tottering pile keeps us in cough drops; and, finally, when my husband needs to double-check the page number of a citation as his manuscript is about to go to press, the bloody reference book is not to be found for love or money. 

Enough is enough. Cursing and swearing, we decide to confront the situation; we will cull mercilessly and gift generously, we will dust vigorously and organise meticulously. 

In short, we will bring order to chaos. It’s Operation Books!
Libraries have the Dewey Decimal system, but most readers classify books in their own signature ways. While organising by shape and colour is ridiculous (unless the reader is five years or less), by the publisher is only marginally less so. (Though there is something to be said about all ‘Penguin Classics’ or ‘Rabindra Rachanabalis’ lined up in a neat row). Alphabetising has naturally emerged as the consensus. The only flipside is that my Marian Keyes could end up next to his J Maynard Keynes. (Good for Keynes, really, it is Marian I would feel sorry for.)

As sticklers, we thus prefer the more laborious process: organising books by theme. The broadest categories fiction and non-fiction—are easily divided. (Except for my very own contribution to crossover: Indira, part-graphic biography, part-fiction. As a compromise, we allow ourselves the third category, children’s literature.)

But now we encounter a more serious issue. How do we now separate the books into more manageable sections? Should novels be placed by chronology or by geography, by genre or by the author? And as for non-fiction, very soon I begin to break into hives: if history, geography, economics (textbooks) and economics (trade), military history and books on intelligence all need their own space, how many shelves will we need? 

Are there enough shelves in the world? That is not even half of it. Where will all the political autobiographies go? Can Pranab Mukherjee’s three-volume life-story sit next to Deborah Levy’s three-volume writing memoirs? Isn’t it icky? And as for the humongous collection of books accumulated by me during my nearly abortive PhD enterprise—will the four volumes of the ‘Natyashastra’ belong in drama? 

(How did we forget drama and poetry? Are we barbarians?) Soon, one of us is weeping. The other is mopping his brow with one hand and popping an Allegra with the other. Neither of us sleeps that night.(Especially because all the yet-unclassified travel books are laid out on our bed.)
The next morning, our housekeeper Rupa didi takes the executive decision that all fiction is to be considered as one category (kahani hai na?). I am able to wrangle a small concession—for ease of access, short stories are to be in one place. (Though not novellas). It turns out to be the breakthrough we need.

The whole operation takes a week and then some falls sick. My hair turns grey. A new shelf is acquired by me on the sly, leading to a long lecture on financial prudence by S. But by our anniversary, the books are done. They shine, orderly and competent on the bookshelves, talking to each other, Tarashankar Banerjee and Anton Chekhov, Thomas Piketty and Abhijit Banerjee (the latter’s recent cookbook is, naturally, in a separate ‘food and drinks’ section, conversing with Colleen McCullough, a novelist who also wrote a wonderful cookbook). We are the worse for wear but have found our own little reward from the exercise too. 

From the darkness of the pre-order era emerged a slim little book, the very first we had bought together, a novel called A Video, a Fridge and a Bride by Nirmala Aravind. "Saurav Jha/ Devapriya Roy/Oct 2004" the inscription on the flyleaf reads. "Esplanade." Damn, I remark smiling fondly at the book. "Should we have classified the books according to where they were bought?"

Devapriya Roy 

Author and teacher; her latest book is Friends from College


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