Sep 7 2010



Over in the comments, Sean Fagan said (among other things):

I’ve been thinking about that for a while now. I generally have the same feeling — I’ll throw out lots of things easily, but books I have to work to do. … I specifically did so because of ebooks, and the ability to have hundreds of books on a device that takes up less space than a single hardcover … Related to the lack of clutter, the ability to actually find any of the books I want is a huge win for ebooks. Only two of the eight bookcases I have left are alphabetized; the rest are just bad organization.

When I culled my own physical-book collection, one of the criteria was: could this be found in a library? (Ebooks were not yet common — in fact, I don’t think the Kindle was invented yet!) That left me with the rare, the esoteric, the beloved, and the autographed. Oh, and reference volumes, which include things like all science and philosophy books, how-to books, and and classic literature.

But what you say about being able to find a specific book now that they’re automatically organized made me realize something: there are disadvantages to perfect organization — or rather, there are disadvantages to being constrained to approaching your collection solely by means of organizational tools.

You might be able to find any book — but can a book find you?

I’m not trying to be cute here. Has this ever happened to you? :

It’s, say, late Sunday morning; or it’s 1AM Tuesday. Everything’s right with the world, and you feel glad and at peace; or you can’t sleep, can’t settle, despite being exhausted and weary of absolutely everything. The cats are asleep in the sun on the windowsills; or they’re curled up tight, on towels on the floor, close to the radiator.

You want to dream.

You want to embark on a journey to somewhere grand; you want to be swept away from everything. You want to be delighted; you want to be comforted.

With your second cup of coffee/glass of whiskey in hand, you stand in front of one of your bookshelves and —

Do you know the title of the book you want to read?

Do you know the author’s name?

How about the year it was published?

Feel like scrolling down a sequential list on a screen?


You move your gaze across the shelves… up, down: all the shapes and colors, and the sight of each brings enough spark of memory for you to know, No, not that… not that… Perhaps you even put your hand out and run your fingers along the spines —


The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester. That’s the one you need.

You didn’t know it ahead of time, but you know it now.

You’ve been found.