When I was about six or seven I got lost in the Baillieu library at the University of Melbourne. I wasn’t lost for that long but I can distinctly recall going up and down the large central spiral staircase looking for my mum who was studying on one of the levels. It was my first experience of encountering a labyrinth. There was only one staircase but each level looked the same.
Not long after we minded the house of a friend who had a huge private library. Books filled the walls and some rooms were literally covered by large piles of books. I loved it, especially the way rooms led on to one another, some up a few steps, some around corners. Each room held more treasures; some of these books I can still remember vividly. Years later as a teenager I saw the film of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It had the most amazing labyrinth, like the great drawings of Piranessi.
It’s no real surprise then that libraries have always had a special place in my heart and my imagination. Since I was very small I loved spending time in my grandparents study which was lined with books, all of them high quality, some of them rare, and on a diverse range of topics. It was a lovely place in its own right complete with its single leather chair and leather inlaid desk. Many days after school I’d run up there and go through my grandfather’s books on military history (Montgomery’s of Alemain’s A History of Warfare), mostly to draw from them, then as a Classics undergrad I sat in there for many hours doing my ancient Greek or writing essays.
Well, last week a friend of mine asked me to help him with a job – organising a personal library. I’ve always loved books, and even as a kid I used to enjoy periodically rearranging my own, or putting them back in order, like arranging my Tintin and Asterix collections by the colour on their spines.
I approached this job willingly but also with some trepidation. While I found it easy enough to categorise most of the books after a few hours of sorting through piles of dusty volumes, to me the finer points of organisation and combination are extremely personal unless you conform to one of the standard library coding systems – something I’ve never wanted to do; far too boring and impersonal for my liking. This is especially true with the books I have out around the house. My bedside reading normally includes a mixture of fiction, poetry, politics, and whatever else I’m into. My wife and I usually have different stacks throughout the house that relate to various projects, whether they’re related to our private studies, theses, or courses we’re teaching.
Even the main bookcases are organised in a way that distinctly reflects what I’m focussing on now. I also arrange them in ways that remind me of things of done in the past and those through-lines, lines of inquiry that are close to my heart. To give you an example, when I was rearranging some of my own books this weekend I decided to feature a little stack of my books on Japanese cinema, not because I’m reading them now, but just as a way of connecting with the four years I spent writing my Masters thesis on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (and the Iliad of course). Similarly, in the lounge room, pride of place goes to my Oxford Classical Dictionary, affectionately known as the OCD (not Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, though this might be disputed!), leather-bound copies of my theses, and our more serious editions of the authors we’ve devoted years, decades even, to studying.
So while I was sorting out this other library I was acutely aware of the mix of interests, and even the logic behind some combinations that didn’t conform to typical standards of organisation. A good example was the place of books on greek myth along with editions of some of the specific stories amidst works on psychology. Like my own, this library also formed a kind of self-portrait – a picture of the journeys on which this mind had travelled over the last fifty years. It was also like a great puzzle or labyrinth in which I was trying to make sense of this individual who I had never met in person. After a week though, I began to feel like was getting to know them, elements of them anyway. Like Eco’s William of Baskerville, I was deciphering the individual through this library and the clues it offered.
I wonder what someone else would make of my collection if they had the same task? How would they make sense of it? Would they notice the quirks that make it unique? Would they find me in the sum of the parts or would they get lost in the different, even contradictory elements? Or would they succeed in showing me something about my life that I had forgotten? I doubt someone else will ever be given this task, but it’s one that I can revisit from time to time when I feel the need to reconnect with myself in times of transition and reflection.