When the COVID-19 pandemic relocated my spring teaching and research to the home office, I was pressed to address the situation on my bookshelves, a site exhibiting what the late Walter Benjamin affectionately called a “dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” The “library” was, let us say, in a state of confusion—which doesn’t reflect well on the mind that owns it.
The shelving remained stout enough, gridded handsomely on an 8x11foot wall, but the books themselves bore witness to the over-stuffed haste of their à la carte use and were in no position to accommodate their cousins from the school office. My Marilynne Robinson books were wedged overtop Kant’s three Critiques. Plato’s Republic was caught between William Leach’s Land of Desire and Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. My missing Penguin edition of The Federalist Papers had fallen behind the row of critical theory. Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King was fighting for space alongside Beginner Guitar Chords and the Wendell Berry oeuvre. I had finally gotten around to reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, but I’d left it askew on Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind and leeching its basement mildew God knows where. Then there was the situation on the floor, where the examination-copy Introductory Philosophy readers and a book on southern cocktails rose Pisa-like, awaiting their assignments. This would not stand.
A personal library, like a toolshed, lives in a state of frequent and pseudo-fruitful interruption. This ontological fate must be appreciated as one sets out to restore its working order, because books are not objects in any ordinary sense—more like willing accomplices in the crime of thinking. And if you have dabbled in the reorganizational chore yourself, then you know that they will present you with some taxing decisions and, before long, some peculiar moods.
First, obviously, there is the question of order. The alphabetical-by-author approach is to be avoided. Even though it seems efficient on the cataloging model, it disrupts the conversation the texts are meant to have. (Would you alphabetize your friends at a party?) Alphabetical-by-title is prima facie wrong. Going by size? Best reserved for the miscellany of the lower shelves, where one can get by housing the giant art books near the encyclopedias and the coffee table books that were never read on the coffee table. My own preference is to run the distribution topically, from the macro to micro, shelving inward from the major genres to the discrete subjects to primary sources and commentaries, then fanning out toward nine and three o’clock with the teaching texts and books relevant to current projects. I allocate the bulky girth of the central shelves to philosophy, my field.
What the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin said of the operation of meaning/signification in language and society strikes me as true of my wall of books: On one hand there are the “centripetal forces” pushing for order and finality; on the other, “centrifugal forces” conducing to creative variation and dynamic transformation. The drives swirl around and cross one another inside our ideas and institutions, and Bakhtin’s charge was that we harness the energy of their contest and convert it into an axial pluralism. That’s a larger task than my four columns of seven shelves apiece can manage, but I like how it sometimes bears out discretely in my rows. Simone de Beauvoir interferes well with Descartes’ Meditations, Jacques Derrida gets to mess around with Hegel. Jean Toomer speaks to Whitman. Virginia Woolf will enliven discourses no matter where you place her. One must be disciplined with the school-of-thought schema, yes, though I think Bakhtin would be pleased with my little “dialogical” trick of having Emerson pass the conversation from German Idealism to American Pragmatism.
So much for the question of order. You must do what works for you. Just know that restocking has a way of becoming something like a precarious game of wall Twister.
The next matter that emerges in the midst of this is more interesting and has no parallel, especially in the pitiable world of digital readers. I mean the time-warping change of mood—a certain shift, as Benjamin put it, back into “a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value…but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate.” Peculiar to this scene is the way in which the books begin to reorganize you, working back through the braided threads of your mind, memory, and spirit, often in surprising ways as you heft them in your hands and follow the old sticky-note trails. The experience has a dialectic of its own, because here turn the forces of rediscovery and reanimation, and in their folds some perforated longings.
A bit of shame gets this going. I find myself holding books that I once (I think) studied carefully and yet could not exactly explain if you walked in the room. I know that I know how to elucidate the salient differences between Aristotle and Leibniz on metaphysics, for example, but give me a minute. Or here is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age—an imperative read!—taking up prime real estate, but it seems my marginalia don’t go past the Introduction. I soon begin to doubt my credentials. That said, I will tell you that I damn well know Heidegger’s Being and Time, and I can teach it to you right now, right down to the vital problems of English translation and the astronomical importance of Section 44 on the question of Truth. But…yes, those are indeed eight little Oxford Short Introductions stuffed out of sight behind the feminism and media culture row.
Thankfully some intervening grace arrives when the books remind me that I am loved and on the right track with ideas. I’m thrilled to reunite with my 1956 edition of Camus’ The Fall, for example. It was a gift from my grandmother in Alabama, and her own name is still inscribed on the first page (I had no idea). There’s also the joy of rediscovered sentences that spoke to me along the way and offer themselves to my concerns about myself and the world today. In The New Being, Paul Tillich reminds me that “The passion for truth is silenced by answers which have the weight of undisputed authority….” Bellow’s Henderson says “Yes, yes, yes. The world of facts is real, all right, and not to be altered…. But then there is the noumenal department, and there we create and create and create.” A character in T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party observes, “Half of the harm that is done in this world/ Is due to people who want to feel important.” Simone Weil still speaks with her prescient force: “We are living in a world in which nothing is made to man’s measure; there exists a monstrous discrepancy between man’s body, man’s mind and the things which at present time constitute the elements of human existence; everything is disequilibrium.” Paul Valéry’s words could delay the shelving indefinitely.
Though so many of the thoughts that arrest me sound like critical judgments and lamentations, I find in them a hard-won wisdom that provides the footholds of discernment and hope. Books, says Emerson, “are for nothing but to inspire.”
Still, some of them are a cause of shame. Though I am pleased to report that none of the books were borrowed from friends and kept as my own, there in the upper corner is a slim volume on Homer’s Odyssey, which is twenty-two years overdue to the University of North Carolina’s undergraduate library and still unread. Of more serious concern: On the bottom left shelf glares the orange spine of The American Pageant, my high school history textbook. It won some kind of adolescent hold over me when I read it, enchanting as it was with the narratives of heroic national progress. I have since learned, as we continue to learn in 2020, that the story it tells is more than a little misleading. Consign it to the flames? I don’t think so. Why? Because here is James Baldwin who is willing to press against it with centrifugal force and remind us that we “are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.” The confrontation still needs to be seen, touched, heard.
Inevitably there looms the final decision: What book goes at the center of it all? This time I decide that only one text really does justice to this still-point in the turning world. My Uncle Frank gave it to me on my twelfth birthday. Its Harvard Classics binding is the most illustrious of the lot, all leather-like and gilded with the word Veritas on its cover. Now it is held together by packaging tape and a rubber band. It tells the story of a man who is, by most accounts, absurdly “wrong” about himself and the world he resolves to rescue, but wrong for all the right reasons. There was an inspired madness and courage in his logic, a resolve lent to him by his fabled library—which the local dogmatists would burn in his courtyard on account of its heresies. I am speaking, of course, of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
No library is perfect. A good one is aspirational in a singular way. It is not about banking expertise or showcasing intellectual command, but more like an unfolding fidelity to the radical wager books risk when they try to make sense of important things, and when they often argue with one another in doing so. The library becomes a standing invitation to maintain that wager, that dialogue, like a to-do list for the convicted mind.
That’s all very tender, you may say, but this is no time to hide behind books. We’re in a perfect storm of crises, after all—of public health, of racial injustice, economy, climate, democracy, truth. It’s a legitimate concern, and I will not pretend that what I can do with my library will be of much concrete help to my neighbors near and far. Nor can I say with any certainty that my books can change me the way I ought to be changed. But at a time when America is trying to overcome the polarizing conflicts and binaries in its bloodstream, the self that is so often torn between study and action must step back.
Good books are essential workers that need to be cared for. They are statements of belief that issue calls to action. Truly good books do so on the basis of much toil, rethinking, and self-examination. That is a generous offering. What the novels I adore do in narrative, what the philosophers I study do systematically, what my sacred texts do confessionally, and what my poets do in the most stirring register of all…is ultimately to reckon with reality, diagnose its ills, and summon the courage to heal it. They usually know that answers and change are things that don’t come easily. So they cultivate endurance in themselves and their readers. They reorganize us internally. As contemporary poet and novelist Jayson Reynolds figuratively suggests, we “must have stacks and stacks of books on the inside of [our] bodies.”
All this speaks to the living energy that comes from the special dialectic of order and disorder in a book collection—one that, by my reading, could be of help to us as we try to reorganize (as it were) our national library.