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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mind Map

A man and a woman have built a library meant to help you find what you're not looking for. It's the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, thirteen thousand volumes strong and organized in the half-logical, half-chaotic way of the human brain, so that in one aisle the "Suburbia" section flows into "Domestic Environments," which in turn becomes "Architecture"; and in another aisle "Typography" blends into "Visual Arts," which branches into "Fine Arts" and ends in "Advertising" and "Sales." It feels to me like the map of a mind, a labyrinth that I wouldn't mind being lost in. Because this is what a library is for, even more than to help you find, say, the authoritative book on manatees or the life of Matisse: to expose side roads, unexpected mental paths from endangered species to orchids or urban development, from Matisse to the printing press or ancient pottery (these are the wildest and most tenuous and blood-quickening connections I can make on the spur of the moment), to challenge you to see the strange ways everything is linked to everything else -- a fruitful sort of disorganization.

I know people who disagree. (In my more disciplinarian moments, I am one of them.) But I don't imagine these eccentric little private libraries replacing the enormous Dewey decimal system ones. Rather, I think of them of a refuge from the predictable, and I'm one who needs such refuge.

Strangely, though, as much as it excites me, Prelinger Library's unusual way of shelving books also makes me deeply uncomfortable. There's the question of time. Who can afford hours and hours of blissfully being lost? And there's the difficulty of finding your way back to the idea that you started with, of being overwhelmed by how, indeed, everything is connected to everything else. Finally, there's the problem of someone else doing your thinking for you. A private library like this is like being inside someone else's head, prey to her limitations and prejudices, trapped in the way she looks at the world. But no matter how risky, I have to confess that, for me, this is the most tempting aspect of the whole endeavor: to explore what it's like to be someone else, being myself while being other.

Perhaps I'm making this library sound more dangerous than it is. I like the couple who started the Prelinger library; their love of books is excessive enough that I instinctively trust them. It's the best way to be a little insane: to start buying thousands and thousands of books and build a library that's a reflection of who you are in the most accurate and defiant way possible. We all do it on our bookshelves, as little and as much as we find the courage and the time to. But I at least still group my philosophy books together and don't let them spill into poetry or science or history. Maybe I will, from now on. And then Godel, Escher, Bach will lean into my Latin-English dictionary, which will be flanked by How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, and the row will be capped by Carl Sagan and his billions and billions of stars.


Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

My library's organization has been fading away. Philosophy is mostly in the left-hand bookcase in the back room, except that the stuff on syllogistic is on my desk. Foreign languages were originally next to philosophy, but they've been spreading into the living room. The living room is mostly contemporary fiction and poetry, with small enclaves of law and children's books. Walter Benjamin is in the living room and the bedroom at the same time, a remarkable feat, even for a dead guy.

So, I'm slowly sliding towards your couple's way of sorting books; eventually, the organization will be completely random.

May 16, 2007  

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