In Praise of the Book Tower
On Clutter, Collecting, and the Infinite Stack
“I don’t think book towers would work for me,” wrote one reader.
“I would go completely bonkers with the books stacked everywhere,” said another. Bonkers, I thought. God. I have driven this woman mad.
I was reading the comments section of the “House Tour” of my North Carolina home on the design site Apartment Therapy. I’m a collector, and I live in an unabashedly stuff-oriented house. I like a lot of things in my field of vision. I like to bring things back from trips. I like to spend Sundays at flea markets and antiques malls. Among my stuff are many books—some on shelves, some in stacks. I have moved lots of books to my office on the college campus where I work, but lots remain.
I kept scrolling through the comments. One person was convinced that I was destroying the books: “I get that some people are nuts about books (I keep my collection around 50, ‘1 in 1 out’ style), but you might as well take care of them and give them a chance at a longer life. Who’s going to get down on their hands and knees to pick out a book off the floor?” Others were concerned about the piles of books in the foyer, as if their presence in this liminal space might block one’s easeful movement into the domestic sphere. “The pile of books right when you open the front door throws me off a bit,” wrote one reader. And from someone else: “The stack of books in the entryway is a distraction. It looks like there is a beautiful, old radio behind it just waiting to be discovered! Too bad we can’t see it.”
I had obliterated my radio with these distracting books. Why would anyone pile books in front of a perfectly good piece of furniture? Another reader wondered what the “point” of the stacks of books might be. Move the books to where they will be read, she instructed.
On the particular day that I was reading these comments, I determined that there were two stacks of books on my coffee table, four stacks under the coffee table, one stack on my sofa, two stacks on the end table next to the sofa, one stack on the chair across the room and another two under an armchair, one stack on the end table next to the armchair, one stack on top of my bar, one stack next to my bookshelf, and seven tall stacks in my foyer, pushed up against the obliterated antique radio.
All told, I counted 98 books in my living room that were not shelved, not including the one-volume micrographically reproduced edition of the Oxford English Dictionary that sat alone in the corner of the room, next to my bar, with its domed magnifying glass on top. There were 233 books stacked in my foyer, mostly in front of the old radio. And these were just the books in two rooms of my house. I also had eleven stacks of books in my home office and two in the guest room. A small, constantly-changing stack lives on my bedside table.
Not all readers were against the stacks of books; many came to my defense. “It’s ok to have stuff,” wrote one reader. “I absolutely LOVE that there are books everywhere that you turn in this home. To me nothing says home more than a stack of books,” piped in another. Several noted that they liked the fact that the books had not been put away for the photographs. They’re welcoming, said yet another. “To me nothing is more personal or friendly than a huge stack of books waiting for their turn to be read.” (Months later, someone posted that she had lost her cat and most of her belongings in a fire, and that although about a third of her books were un-salvageable, she kept and cleaned the majority of the sooty, soggy books and took them to her new home, where they now reside in towers.)
I wondered: What was at stake in this debate? Why were my stacks of books the source of so much disagreement? Those who found the books anxiety-inducing and cluttering weren’t being nasty; they genuinely couldn’t stand the idea of piles of books all over a house. Put them away was the idea. And those who were pro-books embraced the controlled chaos of the piles and what they represented: the home of a reader. These compatriots couldn’t imagine a house without books.
My very own compact Oxford English Dictionary defines a stack as a “pile, heap or group of things, esp. such a pile or heap with its constituents arranged in an orderly fashion” and traces the word back to a reference to fish arranged in a “stac” in 1300. A stack can also refer to a great quantity. If you swear on a stack of Bibles, you are swearing on a lot of Bibles. But “stacks” are also the shelving on which books are arranged, or the part of a library designed for storage, access to which is often restricted. (Thus the tales of amorous encounters that take place in library stacks.) And then there is the word “pile,” or “a heap or stack of things (of considerable height) laid or lying on one another” or a “large group or collection of things (without reference to height).” Stacks and piles, piles and stacks. They are ordered, but not too ordered. They bring together things that are alike, but not necessarily the same. They are collections of sorts.
I used to sit in the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library and order books from the stacks and try to imagine that vast space beneath me, beyond the visible city. The books appeared out of nowhere, brought up like coal from a mine. And behind the circulation desk, stacks of books waited, with their little slips of paper, to be sent back down to their home on shelves.
We think of a bookshelf as a book’s home. But why the attachment to the bookshelf? What does the bookshelf accomplish? Order, certainly. Classification. If you put books on a bookshelf, you’re probably going to consider which book goes next to which other book and why. In his 1978 essay “The Brief Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books,” the French novelist Georges Perec identifies two challenges that face the book collector: space and order. Readers, he notes, like to be able to see their books:
Just as we put all the pots of jam into a jam cupboard, so we put all our books into the same place, or into several same places. Even though we want to keep them, we might pile our books away into trunks, put them in the cellar or the attic, or in the bottoms of wardrobes, but we generally prefer them to be visible.
In practice, books are most often arranged one beside the other, along a wall or division, on rectilinear supports, parallel with one another, neither too deep nor too far apart. Books are arranged—usually—standing on end and in such a way that the title printed on the spine of the work can be seen (sometimes as in bookshop windows, the cover of the book is displayed, but it is unusual, proscribed, and nearly always considered shocking to have only the edge of the book on show).
Books have different lives in a home and in a bookshop. And they’re apprehended differently as material objects. We identify the whole by a part: the domestic spine versus the commercial cover. But if you place books in stacks, you reckon with both spines and covers, if only the cover of the book on the top of the pile.
By stacking my books, I have not really organized them—not in the way that Perec means. He says that there are various options for classification, all of which are insufficient: alphabetically, by continent or country, by color, by date of acquisition, by date of publication, by format, by genre, by major periods of literary history, by language, by priority for future reading, by binding, and by series. But he knows the world of books is a disordered world. He can never find the volume he’s looking for, but he doesn’t mind—he generally finds other useful volumes in the process of searching.
After all, how does a book find its place? Where does it belong?
Systems of classification promise not order, but the unshakable sense that such a thing is impossible. We can’t organize our books because our relationship to our books is constantly shifting and changing. We can’t fix their identity because that identity is unstable. In the film High Fidelity (2000), the main character Rob Gordon opts for something resembling Perec’s fourth classification option—by date of acquisition—when he decides to reorganize his records, but he refers to the system as “autobiographical,” and the date of acquisition is only the beginning. In order to find a particular record, he has to be able to reconstruct a detailed narrative of what was happening in his life when he purchased the record; the system is densely associative and unreadable by anyone other than himself. This autobiographical system of classification folds objects into the self; it represents a total breakdown of the relationship between owner and object.
Perhaps there’s something pleasing about a stack of books because it rejects the very classification that worries Perec. The books in my home are not really all that organized. They are free. On the other hand, I keep my books at work in alphabetical order so I can find things pretty quickly. By the end of the semester, my books get a little mixed up, but then before winter break or before the summer, I try to put them back in the right place.
You might say that there are two loose organizing principles to a stack of books: first, those that I acquired first tend to be on the bottom of a given stack; and second, the stacks reflect what I tend to read: nonfiction and poetry. Most of the novels I have read are shelved. I still take them down and reread them, but in some ways they seem far off to me, as if they are out of reach.
My antique Shakespeare books in the guest room are shelved because I don’t read them. I have been collecting these books over the last 15 years—from booksellers on the streets of New York City and at flea markets—and some were gifts, like a small, green set from my sister-in-law’s parents, their covers worn and in some cases broken off, the pages crumbling. I keep these delicate volumes in a small stack on one shelf.
My antique Shakespeare books are colored spines to me. The Yale Shakespeare editions are a faded light blue, some little, narrow volumes more faded than others; the volumes of the Classic Publishing Company and the Illustrated Cabinet Editions are red; and the Harvard Shakespeare set is mustard yellow—and larger and fatter than the Yale editions. I like to look at these old books, and I hope that others like to look at them, but that is what they are: things to be looked at and to be handled.
They’re not valuable, but they make me feel connected to the past and to a history of anonymous strangers who read these plays. For my birthday last year, my brother sent me a 1916 faded green Arden Shakespeare edition of As You Like It that he found in the storage unit of our grandmother’s carport in Pineland, Texas. Several people have written their names on the inside cover, as if trying to claim the book for themselves. The only names I can make out are Francis Temple and Jewel Stubbs, and Jewel Stubbs has also written Jewel Lenin below her name. Someone else has scrawled Property of Pineland High School in black script, as if resisting these attempts at ownership. It might have been checked out the library by my mom. The high school was torn down in the late 1980s, so the library no longer exists.
Sometimes I take one of these Shakespeare books off the shelf and thumb through it, but when I really read, I read the modern paperback editions in my office at work, which are filled with my notes, scribblings, and marginalia. And I teach from them.
Maybe we are less likely to read books when we put them on a shelf. If I want to read a book, I take it off the shelf and put it in one of the stacks. Then I can contemplate it.
And maybe we are more likely to see books as beautiful objects when we put them on shelves. Like Perec, Walter Benjamin also thought about books as things. In “Unpacking My Library,” he writes of collections of books as manifestations of the desires of the collector and his attempt to touch the past. Collecting offers “the renewal of existence” that children experience all the time but adults must seek out. It isn’t about using the things we collect, but about subjecting ourselves to their magic. The collector has:
…a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness—but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate. The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.
His vision of a magic circle suggests that the book collector is the sun to a universe of her things. She can surround herself with bookshelves. She can surround herself with stacks of books.
Some time ago, I saw an episode of House Hunters on HGTV where a young woman searching for an apartment in Manhattan expressed dismay that the living room of a pre-war apartment was lined with built-in bookcases. “It’s too much. I’d have to tear all these out,” she said to her mother. “Who has this many books?” She didn’t like the magic circle of bookshelves.
I’ve never had built-in bookcases, but despite my fondness for stacks, I like to think they’re in my future. I had four 79.5” birch-colored Billy bookcases in my old apartment in New York City when I was in graduate school—with the additional height extension units. I don’t think I knew anyone in the city who didn’t own at least one Billy bookcase. Tall or short. Black, white, birch, or beech. Most people had birch. One night, my friend Jon almost toppled one of mine over by leaning against it after many glasses of wine. Only a potted plant came crashing down—no books.
I used to sit on my couch in this apartment and look across at these bookshelves, all in a neat row, and the books neatly alphabetized, like the libraries where I spent my days. I was more into classification then, subject to the tantalizing dream of order, envisioning a library like those I saw in BBC costume dramas featuring Great Houses: every wall would be covered with books.
In 19th-century England, the library in such a house was in part a sign of the owner’s gentlemanly education and aristocratic right. But some of these libraries were also functional: they lent books and operated as social spaces. Richard Monckton Milnes’s library at Fryston Hall in South Yorkshire is said to have housed one of the largest collection of erotica in Victorian England. It was known by its users, including Algernon Charles Swinburne and Sir Richard Burton, as “The Aphrodisiopolis.”
A library gathers books into one place, but stacks can be moved about. They are not bound by rooms. They are a bit unruly.
My own stacks of books were approved; they were condemned. They were creative; they were clutter. They were welcoming; they were terrifying.
The Apartment Therapy debate reflected broader cultural understandings of the objects we put in our homes. Contemporary bourgeois American culture has an ambivalent relationship to personal possessions. This is the paradox at the heart of consumerism and capitalism: we are required to consume, and we even want to, but we’re also asked to feel guilty about the things we acquire and to reject them as meaningless, anxiety-inducing clutter. Countless magazines and books will tell you how to streamline and organize your home—and, by extension, your life and psychological state—by purging objects.
The bourgeois consumer consumes and then disparages this as materialism. She feels shame. Because even as she is told to buy things, she is also told to fear a cluttered home. This haunting specter represents her failure to control her objects—a failure to hide them away in closets and storage units. She fears that the endgame of capitalism is that the objects will win.
But the collector feels no shame. The collector does not fear clutter.
Are my stacks of books clutter? To some people, yes. Do they block the antique radio? Yes, they do indeed. Do they sometimes fall over, and are they hard to dust? Yes. But I find it a supreme pleasure to be surrounded by books that I may read today or tomorrow or soon or not for the rest of my life. Because they hold ideas in their crisp or crumpled pages, and because they are beautiful objects, and because they are mine and I know when I bought them and why. I like to look over my stacks and think about what to read. I see ideas to be contemplated, stories to take in with a bourbon in my hand and my dog by my side. I see torn covers, and spines faded by the sun, and underlined lines, and phrases jotted in the margins that years later I no longer understand. And when I see these things, I see myself, and the world I inhabit, more clearly.