Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The dissolution of my literary OCD

Bibliohubby makes endless fun of me for the way I organise my bookshelves. I should preface my explanation of this by noting that I come from a family of obsessive categorisers, so it is probably genetic. My dad loves his music and his sizeable collection of CDs is arranged chronologically, according to musical period - baroque, classical, modern etc. My brother is an oenophile (he collects wine), and - like Rob Fleming with his records in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity - his idea of a good weekend is to re-arrange his cellar according to new organisational categories.

My mum's obsession is books, just like mine, and we use similar systems of classification: we both organise our fiction geographically. As in, the country from which the author stems is the first and most important level of classification. Within geographic regions, the books are then arranged alphabetically by author. In my collection, the geographic regions themselves are also mainly set out alphabetically, so I have American works of fiction followed by Asian, then Australian, then Canadian and so on. Africa and the Caribbean I put together because of their Heinemann association (I never pretended this system was rational), so that joint category comes after Canadian. Europe is one group, as is the Middle East, followed by Russia. Books from the UK sit together as one geographic entity. Classics from all countries (but mainly of the Western Canon) are a separate category, falling after the geographic sets. Poetry and drama have their own bookshelf and non-fiction is then arranged according to type - psychology, philosophy, theology, reference and so on.

Needless to say, it took me a long time to arrange my shelves and I'm surprised Bibliohubby didn't run for the hills when he had the chance, as the revelation of my very specific form of OCD pre-dated our wedding and the birth of our first child (he was only Bibliofella back then). Having finished my massive project, I would then tweak it every now and then, pulling out a book here, re-inserting it there. My shelves were a source of immense pleasure - in fact, an image of those very shelves form the background to this blog and they can be seen in all their organised glory here:

I even used to ensure that the spines of the books were all lined up uniformly, but ever since Iggy, my son, has grown old enough to crawl and then walk, my precious approach to the shelves has disappeared. They now look like this:

Unfortunately, as we were already starting to pack up our house for an impending move when I took this shot, I haven't been able to show you a broader view, but even here you can see that the shelves are littered with: two packets of baby wipes in case of dirty hands, mouths or bottoms in the living room; two printed copies of the draft manuscript of my book; a pink dummy (pacifier); two framed wedding photos and various other things that are too precious for little hands; a small pile of children's books for easy access if the mood strikes.

What you can't see is the gradual process that led to my use of bookshelves as storage space for things other than books. You can't see the process by which first the bottom shelf, then the second and eventually the third was decimated by my son as he grew taller.

First, he enjoyed pushing all of the books into the shelves towards the wall so that the spines were no longer lined up. But then he discovered it was way more fun to actually remove the books from the shelves. Here is a photo of Iggy finding his literary soul:

After the 134th time he did this, I decided it was more trouble than it was worth to put the books back in any sort of order. Bibliohubby and I took to shoving the books back in randomly, wherever they fit. And so it was that Gabriel Garcia Marquez ended up next to Naguib Mahfouz, Dostoyevsky next to Freud, Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet alongside Drabble's The Peppered Moth. And, astonishingly, I didn't really care. I even quite liked the juxtaposition between the militantly organised upper shelves, those he could not yet reach, and the absolute jumble of the bottom ones.

As Iggy grew older and developed a serious fascination with cars, we started keeping large tupperware containers in the living room so that we could quickly toss the end-of-day debris of randomly strewn toy cars into these when the storm had died down and we could enjoy some rare adult time, too precious to waste on tidying properly. I started pushing the books on higher shelves back towards the wall so that the tupperware containers could sit in front of them. That's when the shelves' secondary purpose as useful storage space suddenly became apparent - to me the Mother, not me the Book-Nut.

And so, eventually, we ended up where we are today.

In my BC (before children) days, I never would have guessed that I would one day happily toss aside my literary OCD.  But in those days I probably hadn't considered that it would come down to a choice between hanging on to fastidious order and making it through the day with my sanity still intact. Lucky for Bibliohubby, sanity won that argument (though I'm not sure he would always agree with me on that count!).

Of course, as I pack up my books now and sadly contemplate several years before me in which I won't see them at all, in any kind of order (more on that later), I find myself promising that when I get to unpack them again one day, in a new house, I will do so with all the obsessive vigour I first showed in our current home. Maybe by then we'll be able to afford a house with a spare room I can use as a library. And maybe by then the kids will be old enough to pull a book down from the shelf only when they're interested in actually reading it.


  1. I loved this so much. Your hair would stand up if you saw how my books are "arranged"...essentially, stacks of them wherever I have the merest hope of catching a moment to read them. Random piles: gardening books elbow knitting patterns while board books canoodle with fiction. I laughed at the idea of Dostoevsky cozying up to Siggy F...imagine the conversation!! Ah, yes. BC. We moved 5 years ago and I still have boxes of books in the barn...every now and then I'll think, "Now where is..." like it's an old friend I need to catch up with on facebook. My only book categorization now is for the kids' books that we cycle in and out of the living room: one basket for board books for the baby, one for our favourites (Brambly Hedge, Little Grey Rabbit, and so on), and one for library books.

    I'll tell you a parenting thrill you've yet to have: when Iggy can read by himself and starts to do it without any prodding. I find Jude stretched out on the couch reading now and my heart leaps and sings.

    And I'll bet Bibliofella knew exactly what he was getting into.

    One more confession: sometimes when I make unnecessary yarn purchases, I hide them in that space between the books and the wall. Also a good place to hide birthday and Christmas presents!

    Great post, as always!

  2. Oh, I can't wait until Iggy can read by himself and actually wants to do it. How happy that will make me. And I find myself already looking at my baby girl and thinking how joyous it will be to share my love of reading with her, the way my mother did with me.

    As I write my books sit stacked against walls in my in-laws house, where they will stay until we return from our stint living overseas. It was heartbreaking removing them from the shelves!

    I LOVE your hiding place behind the bookshelves idea! Will definitely be using that in the future!