Friday, February 20, 2009


Melvil Dewey is spinning in his grave

Surfing around last night, while Allison watched Grey's Anatomy, I came across an article about bookshelves organized by color, featuring the following image of an art installation built around the idea.

Years ago I was in Manhattan with Allison and a bunch of our gang, and we visited the apartment of a friend of a friend. The roommate of the friend's friend had a full wall of bookshelves, organized chromatically. Books were sorted by color, and not by author, subject, or any other sensible method. Most of our group was only mildly intrigued, but Lou Anders and I, OCD-ish bookfreaks that we are, were completely freaked the fuck out. We were still talking about it, hours later. "How would you find anything?!" we kept shouting over the noise in the bar, or the restaurant, or any of the other places we ended up that night.

I still think about those shelves, years later, with an intense feeling of unease. Sure, it may be aesthetically pleasing to look at, but let me assure one and all that it is completely and utterly wrong.

I suspect in these cases you've answered your own question. Those who would organize a book shelf by color don't have the books for reading purposes. It is merely and only a decorative accessory.

Chromatic book organization may be rare -- this is the first time I've heard of it -- but most of the really upscale interior decorators, those who serve really rich clients, will probably be able to tell one anecdote after another about having to buy large collections of old books -- the expensive leather bound stuff -- for the sole purpose of filling the clients' shelves, so that he'll look learned and intellectual. I've heard incidents like that often enough to conclude that it's a reasonably common practice. And in every case, the client doesn't care what the books are about -- since they won't ever be read -- only that they look good in a library room.

And then there's that phase about ten years' back when every Hollywood star started copying every other Hollywood star in making sure they always appeared in public carrying a book. This was immediately after the trend was to wear eyeglasses they didn't need (and there was some crossover, where both books and eyeglasses were worn) and right before the trend where everyone was suddenly into smoking cigars.

Books are visual decoration. Some folks still remember there is another function for them.
A relative of mine and his wife spent several weeks merging their book collections, sorting them by subject and author. Then they went on vacation. His mother-in-law, who was horrified by the look of the shelves, reorganized all the books by size and color while they were gone. They were pretty freaked out when they returned home.
I have something a bit different at my home: My books are organized by publishers, and in each set of publishing house they are organized by... (please don't cut my head off now) colour. And I can assure you, I can find a book in no time. But, if someone would start organizing my books differently, say by writers or any other sensible method, I will be totally lost. Naturally, the thing to remember is that the books in my home (and I have A LOT!!!) are organized in a way that will be easy for me, not easy for other people, who do not live in my home. And that's all there is to it, really.
About once a year, Adobe in San Francisco does this. Once, I went with my friend Danielle:

It really looks nice in person. I almost considered doing it - I know what my books look like and they're not organized as they are now. It's tempting but would be quite a project. Right now I know book X is on "somewhere on that shelf over there" so why not do it by color anyway?
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