Dutch homes always have a collection of books, often placed on shelves near the front windows where they can be seen from the sidewalk. American houses tend to follow a British model, where books are in a separate study, off the public areas in a quieter part of the house.
The Kettle’s Yard house had bookshelves scattered throughout: my favorite was a nook with a Massachusetts-style armchair tucked back by the fireplace.
I took a bit of time to sit and just get the perspective of why it had been put in that spot, of what ambience it held. It nicely nestled into a warm corner filled with afternoon light, the shelves glowed and the books encircled. Lots of interesting titles, mostly old travel stories, some biographies clustered together.
The more I looked through the books, the more I started to notice their order. There was a shelf of science, a corner of European politics grouped by nation. Little evidence of language or mathematics, and no children’s books. I was taken both with the types of books, but also their ordering.
Especially their ordering.
I think that people naturally create libraries out of their books, first around favorite authors or topics like ‘travel guides’ or ‘Dutch language tutorials’. Then reference books accumulate, scratchpad knowledge for solving problems and settling disputes. Philosophical / theological volumes soon crowd against coffee-table books from favorite destinations and artists.
There comes a time when I bought shelves to hold it all, leading naturally to a need to organizing it. Often by topic, easily, but soon leading to questions of what to put at eye level, which go upstairs in the study or down near the living room. Are there gaps to be filled, perhaps more books or better with knick-knacks? Which do I want to public to see, a reflection of my learning and aspirations; which are private treasures, not meant to be loaned to others.
I like to think that the contents and the ordering of the Kettle’s Yard books similarly reflect their owner. Someone deliberately put particular volumes where they could be noticed and read, others where they could be easily found. I could almost read what was important to them from the collection of spines, could see that their poetry, just off the left hand at armchair level, was how they spent their time. More than the collection of art, the ordering of books finally was what most made this space intimate and personal.
I cart my 10 boxes of books from apartment to apartment across Europe, some for reference, some aspirational, many hold personal meaning. And there is a particular order to the shelves: I typically spend a day moving things around until I get it right.
It’s a funny habit, isn’t it? But so telling about people.
(And a wonderful collection of pictures of personal bookshelves can be found at desire to inspire.)
"A home without books is a body without soul."
Marcus Tullius Cicero