Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bookshelf Musings

Sometimes, the easiest way to learn anything about myself is for me to reorganize my bookshelves. It’s a task that has to be done at least once a year as the influx of new books purchased during the prior months need to be properly catalogued and placed with the rest of their genre brethren.

I have two large bookcases with five shelves each. One bookcase holds genre fiction – the growing collection of science-fiction, fantasy, thriller, and romance. And the other holds a strange variety. The top shelf contains a motley collection of books I use for research – travel journals, mythology, and more than one tome dedicated to witchcraft in some form or another.

Another shelf is dedicated to the classics – Shakespeare, Shelley, Austen, and Melville – along with literary criticism such as the study of American literature’s obsession with love and death. Yet, as I started on the second bookcase holding the motley collection, I wondered for the first time why I worked so hard to keep the genre fiction from mixing with the so-called literary fiction as if the books carried some communicable disease that could leak into the pages of my copy of The Great Gatsby and diminish the green-toned dream of Jay Gatz.

I’m not blind. I’ve always known that I’m something of an Ivory Tower purist. The written word is precious to me. That constant struggle against the imperfection of language and the murky judgment of the writer as he works to capture a moment in time, a memory, a poignant point in history. And then to succeed with a beautiful turn of phrase or a single word that halts the reader, catches him breathless, speechless, and lost within the fabricated moment. There is no joy like it.

But don’t get me wrong. I love my genre fiction. I love my vampires, werewolves, witches, monsters, and romances that bear no semblance to reality. I love the worlds they create, the struggle of the characters in a moral battle that carry shadows of similarity to our own world. And yet they remain separate. Does some bit of my subconscious actually believe these books are less worthy than my copies of Hemingway and Atwood? Have I been brainwashed by institutional instruction into believing that genre fiction isn’t a voice that needs to heard, a baser form of writing that should be read only behind closed doors, under the covers by flashlight? And as such, do I think less of my own work by choosing the voice of a vampire at ease with her own dark nature as a Metatron for my views?

The division of the two worlds grows even murkier when looking at what I choose to keep within the literary fiction. Why haven’t I moved my copy of Dracula to sit next to my books by Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Kim Harrison? Why is not Pride and Prejudice comfortably placed among my other romances? Why has not my precious Dorian Gray been placed next to my equally precious Neil Gaiman books? Is it a matter of time and survival that have earned Stoker, Wilde, and Austen a place among the classics? Is it their place in the rubric of most colleges that has given them an immunity from the disease that is genre fiction?

I finished organizing my bookshelves, finding I am no closer to the answers of my questions. The last of the books are slid into place and a familiar ache grows as I look them over, a part of me wishing that I could give them all equal, top-shelf status. I wonder momentarily if I should now move my copies of Vonnegut closer to my Hemingways considering his all-too-recent death -- a beautiful voice and mind that has grown still but never silenced. Or maybe somewhere between Dorothy Parker and Margaret Atwood.

But for now he stays in his place. Stoker, Austen, and Wilde also stay in their place next to Shakespeare and Melville. Change comes slowly within the world of literature like a building tsunami until it washes over and through everything we know. And like every book, change starts with a question.
Who are you?
What if?


daydream said...

We have the exact same interest in novels. I read Dorian Grey last summer and was left breathless, then I almost died from the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy and Dracula was munched down at my thirteenth birthday and I loved it.

You know that maybe the classics were written in epochs a bit distant from our own (well obvious), so it's more likely to not divide them by genres, because they all fall under the genre classic, which is defined not by topic, but by age. I presume so and would like to think that I am not brainwashed.

Chandra Rooney said...

At least put Atwood with Gaiman. It's ok. You have her permission—she's admitted to being a speculative writer. :)

Freedom Star said...

That's very interesting. I categorize my books by genre. I can't quite remember what my bookshelf looks like back home, but I know that the top shelf of my bookcase is filled with Nancy Drew and Boxcar Children books. Every other shelf is just a messy collection of books. I have tons of fantasy, lots of YA, and of course, my Harry Potter collection. I think I would put my books in order of how often I access the books. That's probably why my ND and Boxcar books are at the top of my shelf. I hardly read them at all but i've had them for so long I can't bear to get rid of them.

Jocelynn said...

Ugh. I didn't think about that. Atwood would go well with Gaiman. So many wonderful voices and no easy way of organizing them. At least, no easy way that would make me happy.

Chandra Rooney said...

When in doubt alphabetize by author last name?