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[whitespace] By the Book

Turning over a New Leaf

By Marina Wolf

SOME SAY cities are alive, dynamic accretions of inanimate objects that have rhythms and reasons of their own. I support the general idea, at the risk of sounding defensive, because it would go a long way toward explaining why it is impossible to keep my cookbooks organized. Instead, they organically come to rest, flotsam in the cosmic ebb and flow.

Oh, I try to assert some guiding principles, especially on those painful but strangely invigorating occasions when the bookcases have to be physically relocated. There are giddy, weeks-long honeymoons, when I pretend that I know what I've got and where it needs to go. Essentials go at eye level--ergonomics, right?--while never-used titles are slotted away on the bottom shelf, where they slowly turn to coal under pressure from the shelves that always collapse on top of them.

"Back-to-basic" books (preserving foods, pioneer foods, etc.) are right below the essentials; below that is the food literature section, the barbecue collection, and a small assortment of Japanese cookbooks. Indian foods make a fair showing on the upper shelves, as do herbs-and-spices and dessert cookbooks, all arranged according to relative strength and history of my interest.

SEE, I DO TRY. And yet, sooner or later, the books reassert themselves, chaos with a conscience. Shelves topple, depositing whole sections on the floor to await a second glance before getting reshelved (fly, little books, be free! . . . oh, look, I forgot I had that one!). Some books come off the shelf for a meal and just lie on the counter, their pages held open by a greasy butter dish--or worse, stuck open by some sugary substance--until the next cooking session shoves all earlier readings aside. And here or there books drift off for research purposes, lone expatriates to the bedroom or living room. The point is, once pulled, the books never return to where they supposedly belong.

The bread section, for example, was well used back in the day when I was voluntarily underemployed and had the time to putter. Out of loyalty to that pursuit, I still reshelve them near the eye-level books. But inevitably they drift down to waist level, a mute reproach to my neglect. Other items--edible insects, medieval cookery, kitchen magick, and the like--are most comfortable on the permanent outback of the collection. I always think I'm going to use them, and place them accordingly, but these fringe titles seem to know they're fringe, and briskly migrate to the far corners.

It has been suggested that perhaps I would have fewer problems with tripping over books and moving books and finding books if there were fewer books. This is a simplistic view of the situation. I've seen people with two cookbooks still not be able to find them in the kitchen. Anyway, if we were to continue the notion of a conscious or animate book collection, then those books are drawn to my bookcases by forces beyond my control, and even beyond human perception. It is true that my profession renders me incapable of rejecting stray books, when they appear on the doorstep, but the point is they appear, sometimes without my asking.

It has also been suggested that this tumbled, jumbled state of affairs is more or less my fault. I could, it is said in a carefully-neutral tone of voice, catalog my collection--either Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress--and shelve accordingly. While acknowledging the reason behind such suggestions, I resist the end result. How can a system set up by someone else possibly work for my own needs, when I myself don't even know what I might need next?

The books seem to be able to sort it out on their own.

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From the January 18-24, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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