Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books

Lynn Wienck on BookPatrol calls attention to Terry Belanger's slim volume, Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books (Oak Knoll, 2003). The publisher calls it an "essay on the idiosyncrasies of book arrangements by collectors over the centuries," such as in this selection:

One promising method for detecting madness among book dealers, book collectors, and librarians is to examine the manner by which they arrange their books on their shelves. As a modest contribution to the literature of this subject, I propose to discuss the lunatic arrangement of books according to principles of color, size, number, aesthetics, subject order, Grangerization, and kleptomania.

Various sorts of books have, either formally or informally, taken advantage of color in their titles: think of Andrew Lang's multi-colored fairy books, of The Yellow Book (or of the Yellow Pages, for that matter), or of governmental White Papers. Meanings can become complicated: by Blue Book, for example, we might mean a guide to the prices of used cars, a college examination writing book, a handbook of contract bridge bids, the Social Register, or a book of etiquette; and determining the intended meaning depends on context. To a politician, a Blue Book is a government report; and because Blue Books tend to proliferate like Mediterranean fruit flies, one can understand the reply made by an Edinburgh bookseller to a woman who came into his shop one day and said she wanted a set of Blue Books: "I don't keep any, but 1 will procure what you want from the Stationery Office, What is the subject?"

"The subject? The subject doesn't matter, I want them in blue,"

With the help of a piece of blue tapestry which the customer had in her hand, the bookseller at length grasped that it was books of a certain shade of blue binding that she desired-books to match her carpet and the curtains in her living room. Once his mind "had coped with the initial absurdity of the idea of buying books for the colour of their binding," he found her an easy and profitable client. The blue books he sold her included E. H. Young's The Misses Mallett, Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, and Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows.

The Edinburgh bookseller concluded that he was a house decorator as well as a bookseller: he decorated minds and rooms.

My only quibble has to do with labeling such behavior "madness." Concern for how books look and how they should be displayed are as old as the invention of writing, and remain very widespread, as this blog continues to document. Such common behaviors must be motivated by more than insanity ...

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