Prisoner of Shelves
In Bruce Chatwins novel Utz, the eponymous character becomes the captive of his porcelain collectionand eventually loses his life because he cannot move without it. From this book, I learned that a word actually existsPorzellankrankheitfor the mania for porcelain acquisition. I also learned that the root of the word is the same as that for pig, because poured trays of molten porcelain looked so pink and fat and shiny.
Im pretty sure of my facts here. And if I could only put my hands on the book, I could be absolutely sure. But is it shelved under U for Utz, or perhaps under C for Chatwin? Or is it in that unsorted pile on top of the radiator? Or the heap of volumes that migrated from the living room to the dining room? I am certain that I didnt lend it to anyone: I am utterly miserly about letting any of my books out of my sight. Yet my books dont seem to reciprocate by remaining within view, let alone within easy reach.
I live in a fairly spacious apartment in Washington, D.C. True, the apartment is also my office (though thats no excuse for piling books on the stove). But for some reason, the available shelf space, which is considerable, continues to be outrun by the appearance of new books. It used to be such a pleasure to get one of those padded envelopes in the mail, containing a brand-new book with the publishers compliments. Now, as I collect my daily heap of these packages from my buildings concierge, I receive a pitying look.
It ought to be easy to deal with this excess, at least with the superfluous new arrivals: give them away to friends or take them to a secondhand bookseller. But the thing is, you never know. Two new histories of the Crusades have appeared in the past year, for instance, and I already have several books on those momentous events. How often, really, do I need to mention the Crusades in a column or a review? Not that oftenbut then, it suddenly occurs to me, not that seldom either. Best be on the safe side. Should all these books sit on the same shelf? Or should they be indexed by author? (Index is good: it suggests that I have a system.) Currently, I pile the Crusades books near titles on the Middle Eastan unsatisfactory arrangement, but I have no History section as such, because then I would have to decide whether to arrange it chronologically or geographically.
Bibliomania cripples my social life. In order to have a dinner party, I must clear all the so-far-unsorted books off the dining-room table. Either that, or invite half the originally planned number of people and just push the books temporarily down to one end of it. In the spring, my wife and I host the Vanity Fair party that follows the White House correspondents dinner, and this means that I can get professional help with rearranging the furniture and the books. This past year, the magazines omnicompetent social organizer, Sara Marks, gave me some ingenious vertical shelf units, allowing me to stack books on their sides. Alas, there wasnt time before the festivities to sort these useful display units by author or subject, so Ive only been able to alter the shape of my problem, not solve it.
The units also make it easier to read the titles on the spines and thus to suffer reproach for their randomness. And lets say I did decide to organize these books: Should I start with A for Kingsley Amis? But wait, heres a nonfiction work by Amis, on language. Shouldnt it go on the reference shelf with the lexicons and dictionaries? And what about the new biography, and the correspondence between Kingsley and Philip Larkin?
Some kind friends argue for a cull, to create more space and to provide an incentive to organize. All right, but I cant throw out a book that has been with me for any length of time and thus acquired sentimental value, or that has been written by a friend, or that has been signed or inscribed by its author. I also cant part with one that might conceivably come in handy as a work of reference, however obscure. All of which provokes newfound sympathy for poor Kaspar Utz.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a visiting professor at the New School in New York. His book Blood, Class and Empire: Anglo-American Ironies has recently been reissued in paperback.