Turning over every book dispels the season’s dampness and invariably turns up a lost volume

It’s a long time since I picked up a book by Janet Frame, Graham Greene, or Zora Neale Hurston. And only recently did I rediscover the works of Kazuo Ishiguro and Henry James. This strange neglect has nothing do with the literary merits of those authors, but rather with the arrangement of my bookcases. The bottom shelf of Bookcase One, which once contained ayurvedic medicines in someone’s shop, has solid wood sliding doors, whereas the upper shelves are behind glass. So every author who fell alphabetically between Henry Fielding and James Joyce sat out of sight for years.

Recently, with a flood of new books, Henrik Ibsen, Ishiguro, Henry James, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Joyce and their intimate neighbours moved to Bookcase Two, which is all glass. This week, James Herriot, Homer and Victor Hugo joined them. Meanwhile, two novels by Louise Erdrich have come down to the invisible bottom of Bookcase One. Anne Enright’s The Gathering is there too, along with T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party.

I now feel like the captain of a sinking cruise ship who has jettisoned all his third-class passengers and begun picking over the ones in pearls. The books just before T.S. Eliot’s are my treasures by George Eliot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens. I can’t put them in the dark one day, behind doors that always stick when I try to slide them open.

Do I stop acquiring new books by authors from A to E? Do I decree that one old book shall go out for every new one in? Or do I stuff old diaries in the bottom shelf and move along every single book thereafter, all the way to Bill Watterson’s Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat? What would the National Library do in my shoes?

It wasn’t just fiction and literature we turned upside down after clearing out termites and buying a more impervious bookcase. Art and Nature joined yoga and philosophy in the puja room. History and politics went into the bedroom. Writing and grammar moved upstairs.

It might have been simpler to fill the new shelves with the books heaped on the floor instead of imposing alphabetic order, and let Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator rub elbows with the new Penguin hardback Oliver Twist. But turning over every book gives me a chance to clean them and dispel the season’s dampness. And I invariably turn up a lost volume.

This time I found a small, square hardback containing selected writings from an American naturalist, In Nature’s Heart: The Wilderness Days of John Muir. I bought it second-hand, offhand, long ago. “It is a good thing,” Muir writes “... to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common everyday beauty.”

And there we are. Add a natural order to the alphabetic, and an interval in those dark caverns sounds just the thing.

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