16/03/2012 07:43 GMT | Updated 15/05/2012 06:12 BST

Sorting One's Book Collection

From Notting Hill Editions


An extract from Thoughts of Sorts by Georges Perec, published by Notting Hill Editions.

One of the main problems to be met by a man who keeps the books he has read or which he promises himself he will read one day is that of the growth of his book collection. For it is obvious that it is not very difficult to stack 10 or 20 books, let's say even a hundred; but when you begin to have 361, or a thousand, or three thousand, and especially when the total begins to grow almost every day, the problem arises, first, of stacking all those books somewhere, and then of being able to track them down again when, one day, for one reason or another, you want or you need to read or even to reread them.

Thus the book collection problem proves to be a double one: a spatial problem in the first place, and in the second place a problem of order.

1. On Space

1.1 General considerations

You could stuff all your books in packing cases if all you wanted to do was to hang on to them, or you could pile them up in the cellar or the attic or in the back of your cupboards - but generally speaking, people prefer books to be seen.

In practice, books are most often placed next to each other along a wall or partition on parallel, linear supporting devices. Books are - generally speaking - stacked upright and in such a way as to leave visible the lettering printed on their spines (sometimes, as in bookshop window displays, the front jacket is shown, but what is most unusual, in fact ruled out and almost always considered shocking, is a book displaying only its cut edge).

1.2 Places where books can be put

in the hall

in the living room

in the bedroom(s)

in the toilet(s)

Generally only one kind of book is ever put in the kitchen, the kind known specifically as 'cookery books'. It is extremely unusual to find books in the bathroom despite the fact that for many people the bathroom is a favourite place to read. Ambient damp is universally thought to be the principal threat to the longevity of printed matter.

1.3 Places where books can be put (continued)

On mantelpieces or radiator shelves - between two windows - in the recess formed by a blocked-off doorway - on the steps of a library stool, making the aforementioned unusable (very chic, cf. Ernest Renan)

- under a window

- on a unit placed sideways to the wall and dividing the room into two (very smart, looks

even better with a few house-plants).

1.4 Things which are not books but which are often encountered in bookcases

Photographs in gilt-iron frames, pen-and-ink drawings, dried flowers in stem vases, match-strikers with or without sulphur matches (dangerous), tin soldiers, a photograph of Ernest Renan in his office at the Collège de France, postcards, doll's eyes, sachets of salt, and mustard with the compliments of Lufthansa, letter-scales, marbles, pipe-cleaners, scale models of vintage cars, multi-coloured pebbles and gravel, springs.

2. On Order

If you do not keep on sorting your books, your books unsort themselves: it is the example I was given to try to get me to understand what entropy was: personal experience has provided me with frequent demonstrations of it.

An unsorted book collection is not a serious matter in itself. It is a problem of the same order as: 'Where did I put my sock?' You always believe that you will know intuitively where you have put this or that book.

This apologia of comfortable untidiness contrasts with the pettifogging delights of personal bureaucracy: a thing for every place and every thing in its place, and vice versa. Torn between these two poles, the right to be laid-back, easy-going, and anarchic, and the virtue of the clean slate, the steely efficiency of the great clear-out, you always end up trying to sort out your book collection. It's a nerve-wracking, pressing operation which can nonetheless bring pleasant surprises, such as when you find a book you had forgotten you had from not having seen it for so long, and, putting off to the morrow what can't be done today, you lie flat on your bed and re-read it from cover to cover.

2.1 Ways of sorting books

in alphabetical order

by binding

by colour

by date of acquisition

by date of publication

by format

by genre

by literary period

by language

by series

None of these orders is satisfactory in isolation. The weighting given to each criterion, its resistance to change, its obsolescence and its capacity to survive, are what gives a collection of books its own unique personality.

As far as I'm concerned, about three-quarters of all my books have never been really sorted. I shift them from room to room, from shelf to shelf, from stack to stack, and I sometimes spend three hours hunting for a book without finding it, but occasionally enjoying the satisfaction of unearthing six or seven others which will do just as well.

2.2 Books which are very easy to sort

Big Jules Verne volumes in red bindings, very large books, very small books, Baedekers, rare (or supposedly rare) books, books in special bindings, volumes from the Pléiade collection, novels published by Editions de Minuit, book series (Change, Textes, Les Lettres nouvelles, Le Chemin, etc.), periodicals of which you have at least three issues, etc.

2.3 Books which are not too hard to sort

Books about cinema - whether they are monographs on directors, star albums, or shooting scripts; Latin-American novels, ethnology, psychoanalysis, cookery books (see above), directories (next to the telephone), German Romantics, etc.

2.4 Books which are well-nigh unsortable

All other books: for example, periodicals of which you have only one issue, or Clausewitz's The Russian Campaign of 1812, translated from the German by M. Bégouën, 31st Dragoons, Staff College Certificate, with one map, Paris, Chapelot & Co. Military Publishers, 1900, or else fascicle 6 of volume 91 (November 1976) of the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) containing the programme of the 666 sessions of the said association's annual congress.

Like the librarians in Borges' Babel looking for the book which holds the key to all the others, we waver between the illusion of completion and the abyss of the ungraspable. In the name of completion, we would like to believe that a single order exists which would allow us immediate access to knowledge; in the name of the ungraspable we wish to believe that order and disorder are two identical terms signifying chance.

It is equally possible that they are but two traps, optical illusions designed to mask the attrition of books and systems. But it is no bad thing, in the meantime, for our bookshelves to find occasional alternative uses as memory-joggers, cat-hammocks and glory-holes.