What Would Dewey Do?

February’s Ladies Home Journal features an article about organizing one’s bookshelves by color. The photograph accompanying the article (the above is my rendition; the cat bookends were a gift from my mother some 45 years ago) depicts a shelf of red-bound books beneath which sits a shelf evenly divided between greens and yellows. Way up high on the top shelf, black books and white are nicely integrated with a sprinkling of beiges, tans and ochres. What does it say about book design that there was only one purple book jacket in the whole mix?

As pretty as this literary rainbow is, what serious reader would follow the stylist’s complete decimation of Dewey’s system? I suppose if I thought hard enough I’d remember that the book jacket of James McBride’s The Color of Water is black and white. But Valerie Steiker’s The Leopard Hat? The spine of that wonderful memoir is a dark terra cotta. I’d never find Val again if I didn’t know to look between Mimi Sheraton’s The Bialy Eaters (OK not really a biography but a biography of a bread and the Bialystokers who baked them) and The Ditchdigger’s Daughters by Yvonne Thornton, M.D.

With biographies organized by name, I can imagine a conversation between William Least Heat Moon and Lucette Lagnado. Blue Highways, published in the early 80’s, captures a back roads way of life that has all but died away in the face of interstates and Mickey D’s. Lagnado writes of a lost world in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. It is an exquisite book. Lagnado’s portrait of her father — well-to-do, confident, debonair — and the family he headed in the years before, and following, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power takes you by the heart and doesn’t let you go.  At all.  I still hurt for her family’s losses when I recall their story.

Look Up (my sister’s biography of emigre artist Sacha Kolin) sits between Alma Mater, by P. F. Kluge and Madeline L’Engle’s The Summer of the Great Grandmother. As fascinating a companion as L’Engle would be, maybe Kolin would have had more to say to another white-spined maverick — Dr. Judah Folkman (Dr. Folkman’s War) — whose quest for a cure for cancer reads like fiction in author Robert Cooke’s hands. Kolin, like Folkman, insisted on following a singular vision despite detractors by the dozens.

The best color match of all, were I so organizationally inclined, would go to photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron and the aforementioned Steiker. Daughters of larger-than-life women whose wardrobes were as much about clothes as personal triumph, Barron’s (My Mother’s Clothes) and Steiker’s memoirs of their mothers are loving, bittersweet and multi-layered as petticoats.

My bookshelves do have something in common with the LHJ spread: one lone purple book. Mauve recounts 19th century chemist William Perkins’ quest to synthesize quinine. The outcome of his failed experiments resulted in the creation of a purple powder; the color mauve was born and with it the key to mass-producing fabric dyes. Perkins became a very wealthy man.  It took until the 1940’s to tame malaria.

Despite stylist Lili Diallo’s hue and cry to shelve books by color, I’ll leave well enough alone. Other than Blue Highways, logically bound in azure, I’d never find anything else.

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7 thoughts on “What Would Dewey Do?

  1. Cindy L

    Oh, I wish I were more organized. There is some sense to my bookshelves, though. I separate the fiction from nonfiction, at least. One one shelf I’ve put together all the books about the writing craft; on another, all the novels. I also have a shelf with books by and about Ray Bradbury. But after there, there’s no particular order.

  2. B.A.

    We had a decorator come in when we built the bookshelves in our Chesterfield house — and yes, she designed by color and shape. “More books,” she kept calling, and I’d run to the basement and unpack my father’s original set of Louisa May Alcott and his Treasure Island and the Frank L. Baum. It looked pretty — but I had to later do some rearranging of my own — to put the Charlie Baxters with the other Baxters (such pretty colors on his spines — they ended up dispersed!), the Holocaust with other Holocaust books, the fiction with other fiction, etc. I kind of destroyed the “art” of her design — but it was interesting. And now I know a bowl or basket can look good balanced on books that lie flat rather than stand upright!

  3. Debra

    HI everyone,
    I’ve used baskets, photographs and even a little ivory statue on top of a stack of books (all quote books except for The Bintel Brief which are quotes of a sort.) The way we organize our shelves is a window into how we look at life. Or at least our reading life. Thank you for your perspectives.

  4. Susan

    Thanks for a chance to look around and savor the books around me, which are most definitely not organized by color (or much of anything, for that matter). Poetry with biography, Talmud near cookbooks. I am blessed with an office full of bookshelves, whose contents tend to cluster in thematic groups… except when they don’t.

  5. Elissa Schwartz

    Debra, your post is quite poignant for me given that just last week I spent hours in my home library discarding function for form. As part of my home staging for listing my home for sale in a month, I cleared out about 75% of my books in order to display mostly hardcovers, especially those with colorful, eye-catching bookcovers. Never before have I stacked books in sections or displaced well-worn beloved books for baskets, paintings and a cork teapot and cups. Yes, the shelves will be noticed by prospective buyers and the image projected is that there are just so many shelves that one could never possibly own enough books to fill them, but I miss my books as they are hidden away in boxes. Given the length of time that it takes to sell houses in our area, I have a feeling that I will be missing those books much more a year from now.

  6. brooklyn gary

    A timely question indeed, and therein lies a tale. Once upon a time this past August, we had an AC leak over the sitting room resulting in the ceiling needing full replacement. Our contractor advised no matter how hard he could huff and puff he would not be able to move any of or our book cases while they were full. So there we were having to move the couch, the desk and empty the 3 overly stuffed floor to ceiling book cases. We called upon the giant that roamed our land, our trusty Chevy Suburban, and pressed it into continuous service in fetching enough empty boxes, about 3 boxes per shelf, to store this particularly unwieldy amount of books. So for the better part of fall we organized our books by red, white, and rose within geographic location, California, France, Italy and Chile, with a special section reserved just for the sparkling books. As for sorting them back onto the shelves, by topic, by author, within size. And now they’re all living huddled close together side by side happily ever after. The End.

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