You know when you read something on the internet that incenses you beyond reason? I’m not talking so much about the times an elected official says something eye-wateringly racist / awful about women’s reproductive rights / climate change denial-y. I’m more thinking of the comments that come from unexpected places. The ones that get under your skin and make you want to shout at people who have ultimately only expressed a personal opinion.
Step forward Hanya Yanagihara, whose Shelf Life interview with The Guardian I came across a few days ago.
The piece is about living in a flat with 1200 books, which is exactly the sort of clickbait someone like me consumes with the fire of a thousand burning suns. But very early on in the interview she says something that really bugged me. This was simply:
“Anyone who arranges their books by colour doesn’t truly care what’s in the books.”
Hers are arranged alphabetically by author, you see. The One True Book Arranging System.
Quite aside from the fact this is the sort of snotty comment that would inspire me to go off and arrange my books by colour, it belies a literary snobbery which I think is actually quite problematic.
The reasons are numerous, but here are three to start us off.
1. You Do You
If you have books in your own home, you can and should arrange them in whatever way makes you happy. They are your books.
2. People absorb information in different ways
Some folks find alphabetical order the most effective way to organise their shiz, sure. But what about dyslexic people, for whom letters rearrange themselves? What about libraries and book shops, who famously group things by genre to help folk find what they’re after? The National Library of Scotland catalogues things by height – are you saying they don’t care about books and their content?
2a. How do you manage the alphabetisation of books by multiple creators, for instance comic books? And for those of us in Scotland, what do you do with your Mcs and Macs? Are they before authors that start with M, or interspersed? I’ve seen it done both ways.
2b. Find me a bookseller or library assistant who has never had a conversation with a customer where they explain they’re looking for ‘the one with the blue cover’. FIND ME THAT UNICORN, HANYA. People remember colours of book covers better than they remember their own children.
3. Since when are we disparaging people for buying books?
All book lovers cave in to the desire to buy more books than they should, and possibly even more than they can read. But to be honest, if you’ve gone to the trouble of buying stuff you definitely won’t read exclusively so you can get equal amounts of green and orange in the pattern – you’re still supporting books and authors. Which is kind of rad. Let’s be honest Hanya, the industry needs the help. Book buyers, gaun yersel.
Where did this come from?
I am working on the basis this comment was some sort of dig at the Pinterest generation, shallow people who just do things in their homes because they like the way it looks (heaven forefend).
It’s kind of akin to the meme about millennials surviving on avocados and wondering why they can’t afford to buy a house. The message is that these posers aren’t interested in content, they’re all about style over substance.
The uncharitable part of me wants to point out at this juncture that A Little Life, Yanagihara’s very popular 2015 novel, is hardly innocent of that. It’s a beautifully written and immersive book and I enjoyed listening to it – but boiled down, it is a misery memoir in literary clothing. The central character, Jude, is effectively Dave Pelzer times a thousand. Arguably the most compelling, page turning parts of this book are the horrifying things we otherwise have to read about in trashy magazines or misery memoirs.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But if you’re going to sneer at people for doing things because they’re popular…
As a person who has a documented track record of caring, I undertook an experiment to see whether I could arrange my books by colour without having to go buy any new ones. It took me about ten minutes to pull out the two shelves worth in the feature image. I expect, given time, I could do more. I think it looks quite nice.