I realise that most people order their bookshelves in personally idiosyncratic ways. My husband places his books alphabetically in the first instance, then if they don’t fit, by size – taller ones at the back, shorter ones in the front. Another bookish friend orders them categorically – Poetry, Fiction etc. I prefer mine sorted by country and recently when I tidied up I realised how flawed this system is.
For example, the top three shelves of my custom made bookshelf house Indian writers. But as my pedantic husband and shelf maker extraordinaire points out, William Dalrymple sits next to Salman Rushdie in India while John Banville nudges Julian Barnes in England. ‘What about the Irish,’ hubby asks in an aggrieved way, ignoring the Anglo part of his Irish heritage, ‘you’ve put a Pom next to an Irishman and William next to Salman, and neither are Indian.’ To that I respond that William writes about AND lives in India while Salman still writes about India. And as I have only a handful of books by Banville and O’Brien I didn’t see any harm in cohabitation. ‘How very colonial of you,’ he mutters, leaving me spluttering and doubting a system that has served me and my 800 books so well for decades. It could be he’s a little peeved that he can ‘colonise’ only two out of the sixteen shelves it took him three months to build. His science fiction books, however, are the most visible (see picture). I rest my case.
My other confession is that the Pakistanis share a shelf with the Indians and the Iranians and Afghans canoodle with the Egyptians. But I couldn’t bring myself to put Noam Chomsky and Isaac Bashevis Singer on the same shelf. So Chomsky, Singer and Potok live in the Classics section, along with the Russians, Mexicans, Spanish and Italians. They don’t seem to mind. Would you complain about sharing a shelf with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino? The Americans share with the Canadians, and again, neither Alice Munro nor Annie Proulx have expressed concerns about sharing a space with Toni Morrison and Jeanette Winterson.
The Australians are the easiest and most expansive, fitting cheerfully everywhere, even allowing me to separate the men from the women. And no, no Kiwis have intruded – yet.