Monday, October 21, 2013

Georges Perec on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books

Perec thinks that every library answers a twofold need and may be a twofold obsession: (i) conserving certain objects (books in this case), and (ii) organizing these objects in certain ways. By "library" he understands "a sum of books constituted by a non-professional reader for his own pleasure and daily use." He excludes from consideration collections by bibliophiles and public institutions, like university libraries. The "chief problems encountered by the man who keeps the books he has read or promises himself that he will one day read is that of the increase in his library." They have to do with space and with order. Accordingly, his discussion has two parts:
  1. Of Space which is subdivided into
    1. Generalities
    2. Rooms where books may be put
    3. Places in a room where books can be arranged, and
    4. Things which aren't boos but are often met with in libraries
  2. Of Order
    1. Ways of arranging books
    2. Books very easy to arrange
    3. Books not too difficult to arrange
    4. Books just about impossible to arrange, and
The fifth section has no title. In it he finds that just as "the librarians of Babel in Borges story, who are looking for the book that will provide them with the key to all the others, we oscillate between the illusions of perfection and the vertigo of the unattainable. In the name of completeness, we would like to believe that a unique order exists that would enable us to accede to knowledge all in one go; in the name of the unattainable, we would like to think that order and disorder are in fact the same word, denoting mere chance."

Perhaps so, but I doubt it. Perec is posing a pseudo-problem, as he believes that bookshelves "should serve from time to time as joggers of the memory, as cat rests and as lumber-rooms." Furthermore, he also thinks that "disorder in a library is not serious in itself; it ranks with 'Which drawer did I put my socks in?'"

The problem of order in a public library belongs to a higher and more serious order. The same holds for our notes of these books, unless they are kept in the books of the personal library itself which I do not consider a good idea.[1]


1. Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (New York: Penguin, 1997), pp. 148-155.

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