Bookshelf triage

Francis Darwin reminiscing about his father, Charles:

The books accumulated in the ‘read’ heap until the shelves overflowed, and then, with much lamenting, a day was given up to the cataloguing. He disliked this work, and as the necessity of undertaking the work became imperative, would often say, in a voice of despair, “We really must do these books soon.”

Darwin gets no sympathy from me. If he hadn’t written quite so many letters, I’d never have needed to make space on my own bookshelves for the latest instalment of his superb Correspondence. Several years ago, I set aside an entire shelf for this ever-burgeoning collection, but volumes 1–19 filled the allotted space. The arrival of volume 20 highlighted a problem which, like Darwin, I had ignored for as long as possible.

In ‘On the Origin of Species’, Darwin employs a famous wedge simile to describe the competition between individuals living in an overcrowded ecological niche:

The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.

But for the word ‘yielding’, Darwin might have been describing my bookcases: books jammed on to already over-full shelves; thinner books wedged in on top of others; paperbacks shelved in vertical stacks, in the naive hope that this would somehow decrease their volume. I’d even taken to hiding some books behind others, or stacking them on windowsills, my desk, and finally the floor. I could procrastinate no longer. Something had to give. ‘Survival of the fittest’, and all that. Some serious bookshelf triage was in order.

But where to start? With the fiction, obviously—they make that stuff up, you know. The problem was, I’d already invoked the fiction criterion the last time I’d purged my bookshelves. There was little left to cull. But into storage boxes the remaining fiction went. There were only three exceptions: The Story of Ferdinand, kept for sentimental reasons, being the first book I ever read on my own; my schoolboy copy of The Bible, which occasionally comes in handy when arguing with creationists; and the ‘novels’ of W.G. Sebald, which I point-blank refuse to categorise as fiction.

Next went my Granta archive, followed by my photography books, out-of-date programming manuals, and gardening guides (most of which, if truth were told, I’d never opened). Then I had a brainwave and ditched any books I’d hidden behind others—they might as well be in boxes.

Phase Two of the re-organisation was like one of those children’s sliding-tile puzzles: Book A needed to be where Book B was, but to move Book B, I first had to move books C, D, E, and F (in reverse order), with Book F taking the slot about to be vacated by Book A. But I soon realised this was never going to work: I’d need to make several-hundred of these convoluted shuffles. Crisis was averted when I hit upon the frankly brilliant idea of shuffling entire shelves. After which—and after much dusting, scrubbing and sneezing—it was ‘simply’ a matter of rearranging the books on the individual shelves. In all, the reorganisation only took seven hours.

Mission accomplished!

That was four months ago. I’m writing this in my study, surrounded by my still relatively neatly ordered shelves. The arrangement of the books on the shelves shows clear signs of having evolved, rather than being intelligently designed, but I prefer things that way. Volume 20 of Darwin’s Correspondence now sits proudly on the shelf below volumes 1–19. The new arrangement is a vast improvement—even though I can’t find a damn thing.

But there’s a problem. Volume 21 of Darwin’s Correspondence arrived last month. I’ve been pondering what to do. Perhaps if I moved the Sebalds next to Kathleen Jamie, wedged Simon Gray’s diaries into the Sebald gap, and transferred Thomas Henry Huxley over to Simon Gray’s slot…

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook


  1. T.O. Fife says:

    If you absolutely need to space, I can certainly make the sacrifice and find the room on my bookshelves for your Darwin collection . . .

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