by Nicola Sayers
To be clear: I was snooty, too. I first saw colour-coordinated bookshelves in my friend’s home, and I have to admit that, even then, I liked the look. Each neatly stacked shelf, bright and orderly. It reminded me of the new packets of felt-tipped pens I used to love getting as a kid. But in the same moment, a well-trained habit of literary condescension kicked in (I blame grad school – at heart I’m more an enthusiast than a critic, but they beat that out of you pretty quickly) and I heard myself asking a series of cringey questions. Questions designed to belittle, to declare my own bookishness in some way superior to my friend’s. But how do you find the book you’re looking for? Isn’t it weird to separate books by the same author? How do they all look so clean? (Subtext: do you even read these books?)
But several years and a mild-to-moderate Pinterest addiction later, I found myself one rainy morning, stuck at home with a baby whose sweet smile did not, on that day, quite make up for her conversational shortcomings, and in need of some cheer. And so it was that, a few frenzied hours later, my husband came home to find all of our books rearranged according to colour. (His shelves, he’d no doubt want me to point out, have since been returned to what he views as their rightful order – yes, although we share children, a home and a bank account, our respective bookshelves are still clearly demarcated).
My reasoning behind the reorder was admittedly entirely superficial, but the effect was surprising. I look at, engage with, and even re-read my books much more since the change. Before, I had a feeling that I knew what was there: the classics, my Frankfurt School lineup, my ever-expanding gang of contemporary female writers, and so on. Now, my book collection is both more and less familiar to me. The pops of colour draw my eyes in more frequently, but I find that the thematic disorder left in the wake of the coloured order is also strangely welcome. I not only look at the books more often, I also look at them anew.
The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover may or may not be true of books you’ve not encountered before, but what is certain is that a mere glance at the cover of a book you’ve once read and loved can elicit all kinds of feelings. The afternoon of the reshuffle I caught sight of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld for the first time in a long while. Unpretentious in its white cover, the photo of a pretty girl in a scarf gives off the misleading impression of airport trash. Looking at it, I was hit by a jolt of interwoven memories and moods. I felt viscerally both the insecurity and the excitement of the heroine Lee Fiora, as well as the layers and hopes and worries from my own teenage years that the book had tapped into. I remembered, too, the writerly admiration and fan-girlery that I’d experienced on first reading the book: the notion that Curtis Sittenfeld was the kind of writer that I might one day be (an egregious thought, no doubt, but aren’t most aspiring writers at least somewhat delusional?) Then another memory. Buying Prep in the English-language section of a small bookshop in Stockholm, after an all-day walk through the snowy city with my now-husband, during which we’d grappled with the usual questions that new couples ask themselves before it’s all been decided. What kind of a life do we want to live? What kind of people do we want to be?
I suppose that any reshuffle might do it: ask that you see, or re-see, your collection of books. It seems almost sacrilegious to call to my defence Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, ‘Unpacking my Library’, given that I can’t imagine he would have been on board with colour-coded bookshelves. All the same, his notion that it is not an elegiac but an anticipatory mood which books arouse in a collector feels too resonant here to leave unmentioned. If nostalgia and hope are more closely intertwined than is often understood, as I believe they are (so much so that I wrote a book about it), then this may be nowhere more evident than in the feelings that a much loved book can elicit. My trip down Prep memory lane did not just make me long back to that bookshop in Stockholm, it also reminded me of a still not yet realised promise, of the kind of readerly, and indeed writerly, thrill that does not announce itself in concrete form but flies by so fleetingly that all we can do when it shows up is to grasp at its blurry wings.
But there are specifics to coordinating bookshelves by colour that are worth mentioning, too. For one thing, it creates some unlikely bedfellows (bookfellows, if you will); pairings that can amuse, bemuse, or spark new trails of thought. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot next to Kate Bolick’s Spinster gives me a kick. I like that Susan Sontag has wound up next to Nora Ephron since I like to think they might have been friends, even though to my knowledge they never were. That Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives now lives next to Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen seems, to me, like another happy coincidence. The – in my view bizarrely – controversial contemporary author’s essays critique the bourgeois mentality of our time, just as Baudelaire’s poems did the bourgeoisie of his. I find myself musing about why and when the word bourgeoisie fell out of fashion, when it seems an ever-more pertinent descriptor of the middle-classes in late capitalism (I see you eyeing me and my imminently Instagrammable book shelves, Baudelaire!)
Some themes emerge as well. My black shelf is heavily weighted with academic or academic-ish books. Does a book have to announce itself as serious with a black cover, I wonder? In contrast, my pink shelf is made up almost entirely of books by women. The playground assignment of pink for girls and blue for boys allotted now (still!) to renowned adult authors. The rosy female line-up is broken only by men writing about sex (Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse). I am reminded of the artist Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Dutch wax print’ covered bookshelves at the Tate Modern. How carefully book covers speak to their intended audiences; how those intentions can be subverted.
As a teenager, my parents would regularly come home after an evening out to find the furniture in my room completely rearranged, the urge to single-handedly lug the bed from wall to wall having gripped me with a sudden urgency. Afterwards, I always felt replenished. (I’ve never completely bought the whole change comes from within maxim: sure, you’ll always be you, but I’ve generally found that a new apartment, city, job, room arrangement, can genuinely, and sometimes quite radically, shift one’s experience of both self and world, of self-in-the-world.) During the last bizarre year or two many of us have gotten to know those closest to us, not to mention ourselves, in new ways, like ship-mates after a particularly long voyage at sea. A book reshuffle can allow you to get closer to something else that you probably think that you know better than you actually do: your books.