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Book Box: Create Your Home Library

Dear Reader,

My book club is reading a book about a boy who runs away to a library. It’s about art and trauma and what it is to be “normal”. And how libraries are magic gateways to feeling better.

I think I’ve always known this.

In my school holidays, I spent hours hidden away in my grandfather’s library. He was a stern man, a judge, and a writer, but his library, with its smell of parchment, paper and dust, with its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, was always a haven for whoever wanted it.

In my parent’s house, there was no dust. There were cabinets full of books, each three feet high, and polished in richly burnished teak. The books were protected by gleaming glass doors. On top of the bookshelves were arranged beautiful objects of art — a cut glass vase from the Czech Republic, a Lladro sculpture, a Japanese doll.

There were other home libraries — at the homes of friends and family, and each had a different vibe.

“A room without books, is a body without a soul”, Roman poet Cicero is supposed to have said. And certainly, each library has its singular soul.

So how do you set up your own book nook, a reading sanctuary in your home, that helps you read more?

A home library.

Begin by choosing your library vibe

You may be happy with your books “not yet touched by the mild boredom of order” as philosopher Walter Benjamin puts it. In other words, you may be okay with piles of books within easy reach. In such a case, my grandfather’s home library model would be a good one — the books feel easily accessible.

I tried to replicate that in my house, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves without glass. The downside is dust and people pulling out books to read and never putting them back.

Bookshelves at a height.
Bookshelves at a height.

But if you prefer your books to stay neat and orderly, use a bookshelf with glass doors. Also, consider a few shelves at a higher level, these save space and reduce clutter.

The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski.
The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski.

In the enthralling The Book on the Bookshelf, Henry Petroski addresses the contentious question of designing shelf sizes in great detail.

Problems of book size have been felt especially acutely among librarians, some of whom would go to elaborate lengths to address the matter. The New York Public Library, which dates from 1895, made “a careful study” of how to classify books. Octavos were defined as those up to 11½ inches tall, quartos were between 11½ and 19 inches tall, and folios were those in excess of 19 inches tall. If the standard height of a section of bookshelves was taken as 7½ feet, it could be fitted with no more than seven shelves and still allow a tall octavo “to fit snugly.

In our home library, we have varied the heights of shelves.

As book buyers who live in Mumbai, we need to be supremely efficient in the use of the scarcest resource of all — space.

So the bottom shelves, where the biggest and the heaviest books go, are 14 inches tall. The other shelves vary from 12 to 9 inches tall, thus fitting in 8 shelves, in our floor-to-ceiling bookshelf.

Varying widths in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
Varying widths in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Next, the width.

It is common to make shelves 10, 12, and even 14 inches throughout the library. We have seen them as deep as 20 inches, wasting both lumber and space, and annoying the shelf clerk constantly by the loss of books, which get pushed back into the vacancy behind the row.’ complains Melvil Dewey, who is quoted in The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski.

Accordingly, we design our bookshelves to be 8 inches wide.

Arranging your Books

Bookshelf by subject matter.
Bookshelf by subject matter.

How you arrange your books on the shelf, is the question that follows.

Alphabetically by author? By subject? By publisher — like the New Yorker publications or the HBR set of publications? Or the Dewey Decimal?

Bookshelf by Lydia Pyne.
Bookshelf by Lydia Pyne.

Bookshelf a gem of a book by Lydia Pyne, explores this question.

How books are shelved… shows a certain world view and a particular system of thinking – aesthetic, pragmatic, categorical, or out-and-out haphazard’ says Payne.

Payne also discusses display — with what she calls “books and not-books”.

The not-books are things that fill in space around the books on the bookshelf… stuffed animals, plants, knick-knacks.

‘Not-books’ include a bird and a terrarium.
‘Not-books’ include a bird and a terrarium.

It’s almost as if a person’s bookshelf is a Jungian personality test or a Rorschach inkblot; the books and not-books a person puts on their shelves become a declaration of their identity’ says Payne.

The Three-Book Shelf.
The Three-Book Shelf.

Besides formal bookshelves, in either wood or wrought iron, you can build bookshelves almost anywhere. Use bookends or simply stand stand up three books on your desk and you have a bookshelf!

Back to our book club selection The Book Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, where the characters are discussing German philosopher Walter Benjamin. They talk about his essay on Unpacking My Library, a meditation on what it means to own books and have your own library.

Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him (the collector of books); it is he who lives in them.’ says Walter Benjamin.

I live among my bookshelves, but equally, they live in me. This is so true and I am inspired to be unfettered in the matter of book nooks – surely there are worse things you can do than surrounding yourself with books.

On that biblio-addictive note, bye till next week. Until then, I hope I have inspired you to do some home library renovating!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

The views expressed are personal

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