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It’s official: Amazon now sells more e-books in the US than it does paperbacks. The gradual disappearance of the physical book could be the long-awaited solution to that old problem: how do you organise your bookshelves?

It’s a subject close to my heart; we’re moving house soon and the whole issue is going to raise its ugly head again. Library of Trinity College, DublinI work in a bookshop, so I like to think that shelving books is a bit of a skill of mine. I go by subject: short stories on the short story shelf, history on the history shelf, that kind of sensible approach. At the shop, making shelf labels for obscure subjects is one of the perks of the job. Some of my favourites are the Hobos and Tramps section, the Knots shelf, Books About Other Books, the Sundial section, and Holmes Clones (original Sherlock Holmes books have their own section: this is strictly imitators only).

When I snoop the bookshelves at other people’s houses (come on, we’ve all done it), I’m checking their shelving system as well as the titles. (The Da Vinci Code next to Dostoyevsky? These people are sick.)

The trouble starts with the clash of two systems. My partner is an advocate of colour-coding. According to him, the easiest way to find that Bukowski book he’s after is to remember it had a reddish-yellow spine, and so will be found in the yellow section, at the red end of the spectrum, in the front room. I suspect myself that this is one of those obsessive bloke things, and he just likes the pretty rainbow colours the books make on the wall. I don’t think he’s forgiven me for wrecking his rainbow when I moved in.

It’s a problem that goes back a long way. Samuel Pepys noted in 1666 that he was desperately in need of shelf-space, his books “now growing numerous, and lying one upon another on my chairs, I lose the use to avoyde the trouble of removing them”.

With no recourse to IKEA back then, Pepys commissioned a joiner to make some shelves, which were delivered a month later, “…and thence with Sympson the joyner home to put together the press he hath brought me for my books this day, which pleases me exceedingly.” I like to picture Pepys struggling with an incomprehensible set of instruction diagrams. He did a decent job though – his glass-fronted shelves themselves can still be seen at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Pepys arranged his books by size on his new shelves, small volumes in front, large behind, which isn’t far off colour-coding the spines, if you ask me. Another obsessive bloke, clearly.

My theory is that this obsession over classification comes from the belief that the perfect bookshelf could solve life’s big questions.

In 1873 Melvil Dewey came up with his new decimal shelving system, partly due to an ideological dream of making knowledge available to the masses by making it easy to find, and partly because he was a bit of an obsessive himself. (He wanted everything standardized, including measurement and spelling. He changed his name from Melville to Melvil to get rid of the unnecessary letters.)

Before Dewey came along, libraries all shelved books differently. The New York State Library organized its whole collection alphabetically by title. Shelving The Da Vinci Code when it came out would have meant shifting every book after D in the library down one.

Dewey organised the knowledge of the world into ten classes with potentially infinite subdivisions, meaning his system could accommodate all the books ever written, and any book that could possibly be written in future. And adding a new book wouldn’t mess up the whole system. Brilliant? Certainly. Obsessive? Yup.

Then there was Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, the affectionate nickname for the Harvard Classics series, a collection of titles selected by Harvard president Charles Eliot in 1910. The idea was, if you owned this one shelf of books you had all that was required for literary self-improvement.

See, books, if shelved right, can change the world.

Or maybe just represent it, as Jorge Luis Borges’s infinite library does in his story The Library of Babel. The fundamental law of his library is that its endless books contain all possible combinations of the alphabet, and so therefore the library houses every book ever written. Everything that could be written is already shelved there. (Even this blog.)

The librarians search the endless shelves for the catalogue of the library, which must exist because everything exists in the library, (although thousands of false catalogues must exist too, because they can). The catalogue could lead them to the ‘total book’ which is a compendium of all the rest, “analogous to god“. In this library, most of the books are nonsensical combinations of letters. Order is rare, chaos is the rule.

Which brings me back to moving house. We still haven’t come to an agreement about what our shelving system will be. All I know is that Melvil Dewey would be turning in his grave at the mention of colour-coded spines.

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