Susan Sontag complained about someone who classified his books alphabetically. How could Plato be next to Pynchon? she asked. I’m not sure what her objection was. Both men are from the Western intellectual tradition, both wrote about the nature of being.
Now if Plato were next to Patanjali, from the Eastern tradition, and approaching reality through meditation rather than debate, we might have cause for separation.
But that isn’t the point. Classifying one’s books is not done to arrange them in some cosy intellectual order. The point is to be able to find a volume when it is required, and to know what books you have on a particular subject.
I feel about this because I have spent considerable time developing a system which achieves these two ends.
Sontag, an intellectual with a wide range of interests, had 15,000 books. This may sound like a lot, and it is, but it’s not uncommon. I read somewhere that Umberto Eco had 30,000, and I know Rafiq Zakaria had 10,000. I have 5,000 books but I am confident that many of the problems I face in managing my library Sontag, Eco and Zakaria also did.
Sontag died in 2004. This piece is of no use to her. But it will be to those who have a large collection of books, or who plan to have one over time.
My manner of classification is not uniform, but it is effective as we shall see. The classification is as follows.
By colour: This may be a surprising way of arranging books, but it is the largest part of my library. It comprises Penguin Black Classics, of which I have about 500. These are cheap but excellent translations, often with an illuminating introduction.
They are absolutely uniform on the spine, and so can only be separated on close inspection. However, within the Black Classics, I have a shelf for ancient Greece, another for Rome, one for medieval Europe, one for Christian and Church history, one for Indian classics, and so on.
By series: Delhi’s Low Price Publications, a good resource for cheap Indian classics, has the 50 volumes of F. Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East in bright red hard-bound. Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute published The History of Dharmashastra. Written by our least famous Bharat Ratna, P.V. Kane, the series is in handsome black binding. Then the collected papers of various leaders; Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Ambedkar, among them.
By publisher: Oxford University Press in India produces books with a yellow spine. These are academic works and though on a very wide range, I have shelved them all in one large bookcase.
By alphabet: I have few works of fiction, but these are stacked on some shelves together, to be picked up when the non-fiction is all read—by my estimate in 135 years.
By series: The New Cambridge History of India, about two dozen books, is the finest and most readable resource for the period 1526 to the modern age. Many of these volumes are published by Foundation Books, Cambridge University Press’ local arm, and available for as little as Rs.200.
By language: Between my wife and I we read in Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali and Urdu. I try and learn the script of a new language every couple of years so Japanese, ancient Greek, Arabic books are all clubbed together here. Shelves of the vernacular, as the colonials might say.
By theme: For instance, religion. I have P. Lal’s monumental (by size) translation of the Mahabharat, which takes up more than one shelf. Next to it, with Hindu texts, I have the works of other faiths I am interested in. Abul A’la Maududi’s and Abul Kalam Azad’s exegeses of the Quran, Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, St Jerome on the Bible, Karen Armstrong on Buddha, and so on. Another theme is poetry, shelves I do not visit often now but hope to in a few years. Wordsworth, Iqbal, Ghalib, Burns, Yeats, Wallace Stevens.
By subject: The Mughals chronicled themselves well. The autobiographies of Babur and Jahangir, and the biographies of Humayun, Akbar, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb are together. With them are the volumes written by about 10 European travellers who visited their courts—Bernier, Tavernier, Manucci and so on. I have also clubbed here the other works of the period, James Tod’s volumes on the Rajputs, books on the Marathas and Sikhs.
By genre: Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs are all in two bookcases of about 250 volumes each. There are biographies outside these as well, for instance Plutarch’s Lives, but these fall outside other categories.
By interest: Pakistan, a country I have studied for 15 years, and whose newspapers I have written for, requires a few shelves. Unlike Indian politicians, many of Pakistan’s, especially from the surreal time of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, have written memoirs. I also have economic and social studies of that country which I read many years ago but no longer do except for reference. Much money was wasted in getting the collected works of Jinnah. An awful mix of motor-car repair bills and letters from conspiracy theorists. Many from one Mrs K.L. Rallia Ram of Lahore, who thought the Congress was evil (wonder if she still lives in Lahore).
By geography: One-volume histories of nations—Italy, Germany, France, Brazil. A four-volume Cambridge series on South-East Asia, books on China, Russia and a few on Britain and the US.
By quirk: Histories of objects such as the AK-47, the screw, or of things like salt and caviar, or of madness and of mathematics, a history of the court trial, of ballet, of the Inquisition and many others on such interesting subjects. These I have generously shelved in the guest bedroom so visitors bored by my company may find solace when they retire for the night.
My classification is incomplete and a young man from Reuters is coming later this month to finish the work. Years ago I hired my friend Shrenik to classify my library with the Dewey Decimal System. Two things disrupted this solution. First that I had no idea how to read those labels. Second that I lost my long-standing home in Bandra, necessitating the cutting up of many bookcases to fit in the new, smaller home.
There are two crimes of book-owning I will admit to. The first is horizontal shelving, where books are bricked top to bottom. This makes taking them out difficult. The second is double shelving, with books in two rows. This consigns the ones behind to an ignored existence. I cannot help it because space is limited. I have resolved, and try very hard, to stop buying, but this is difficult.
Few things are as pleasurable to me as opening a package of new books in the mail. Living amid them is very heaven. Perhaps expensive paintings are also like that, but I doubt it. All of your other possessions, your cars and watches and homes, are about how the world sees you. Your books influence how you see the world.
It is important that you see them, shelved for quick extraction. And also for the reassurance of their presence.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
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