BOOKS
10/17/2014 09:08 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2014

Georges Perec Tells You How To Organize Your Bookshelf

Alphabetically, chronologically or autobiographically. Such are the methods of organization we select from when sorting our beloved collections of movies, records or books. Those whose neuroticism makes shelf maintenance seem daunting or impossible might've been holding out for the predicted death of print, hoping e-readers would make the task unnecessary. But print books remain, and so does the frustrating task of organizing an attractive and efficient bookshelf.

Georges Perec, a French novelist with a penchant for classification and a tendency towards cheekiness, offers a few tips in his essay, "Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books." While some sarcastically state the obvious -- "A library that is not arranged becomes disarranged: this is the example I was given to try and get me to understand what entropy was and which I have verified experimentally several times" -- others are surprisingly useful.

His wink at the shortcomings of cool didacticism is amusing -- a friend of his, he notes, used a formula to maintain a desired number of books in his personal library: K + X > 361 > K—Z, where K represents current number of books owned, X represents a newly acquired book, and Z represents a book to be removed. The silliness of employing a useless formula is echoed throughout the essay before he pauses to list the different methods of classification:

  • alphabetically
  • by continent or country
  • by color
  • by date of acquisition
  • by date of publication
  • by format
  • by genre
  • by major periods of literary history
  • by language
  • by priority for future reading
  • by binding
  • by series

Each method has its shortcomings, of course, and some books are easier to classify than others (a book may be written in French but take place in Vienna; another may be set during the Civil War but concern itself with contemporary women's issues). The best means of organizing your books, Perec argues, may be not organizing them at all: "I move them from one room to another, one shelf to another, one pile to another, and may spend three hours looking for a book without finding it but sometimes having the satisfaction of coming upon six or seven others which serve my purpose just as well."

This highlights the joy in discovery readers may find in a bookstore that is more difficult to encounter during focused online shopping experiences. Book selection at its most pleasurable is a roam through stacks, making pitstops along the way.

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