The Tell-tale Shelves
At a used bookstore on New York's lower east side I was amused to see that the shelf labelled 'Erotica' was just one above the shelf labelled 'Fairy Tales.' I pointed this out to my friend who remarked, drolly, 'They're the same thing.' In a way, maybe so. After all, both kinds of writing involve an exciting mise-en-scene and the hope of a happy ending, though in my experience fairy tales contain far more surprises. And not always good surprises. For example, consider this from the Grimm Brothers' "The Three Snake Leaves:" The king had a daughter who was very beautiful, but she was also very strange. She had made a vow to take no one as her lord and husband who did not promise to let himself be buried alive with her if she died first. If he loves me with all his heart, said she, of what use will life be to him afterwards. On her side she would do the same, and if he died first, would go down to the grave with him. This strange oath had up to this time frightened away all wooers... No kidding. But as I got looking at the Erotica/Fairy Tales juxtaposition, it made me wonder about how it is we decide to arrange things. Do you keep the coffee maker near the shelf of mugs? (I do.) Your jars of herbs near the stove? (You shouldn't.) I credit my Scandinavian/German ancestry for a having been imbued with a 'blessed rage for order' to quote Wallace Stevens out of context--and who gets that poem, anyway? The result of this rage for order is that I spent an inordinate amount of time arranging my own bookshelves when I unpacked from my recent move. The 'Fairy Tales/Children's Books' section of my library is near my shelves of biographies. I keep my British Authors, American Authors and French Authors in separate areas and my books by other international writers are all shelved together like some kind of United Nations summit meeting. I play favorites: I keep Edith Wharton, Wallace Stegner, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Sayers and D.H. Lawrence on their own special shelves, as I do my collection of ghost stories.I have a few shelves loaded down with books on France that are somehow joined by books on Scotland, just as if the Channel and England did not separate them. What makes us put things where we do? Quirks, proclivities (my theology books are in the attic), tendencies, I guess. In the library of our brains, maybe there are no unshelved ideas.