‘Books Do Furnish a Room’: Geoffrey Kirk goes whimsical after a visit from a rational archdeacon and repudiates too logical an argument

In the high and far-off times when archdeacons took a personal pastoral interest in the clergy I was unsolicitedly visited by two of them in succession. The first entered my dining room and criticised its decoration. ‘I don’t much like the colour you have painted that ceiling,’ he remarked proprietorially. It gave me an opportunity to object to his unpleasant shoes and quite unnecessarily avuncular cardigan.

The second archdeacon, left alone in the study whilst I made the coffee, opined on my return that my books did not seem to him to be any kind of rational order. So as not to get involved in a needlessly protracted conversation, I agreed with him. But, as a matter of fact, my books are arranged in an order which, to me at least, is supremely rational. Though, I am prepared to grant that it might not be congenial to archdeacons.

Of course it is perfectly proper for public and college libraries to have a catalogue system, and to have all the books properly labelled according to the lights of a Dewey or some such person. In a private house, however, that would be both unnecessary and pretentious. My way is quite adequate to my needs. It is moreover, the natural way. For instance, when a book or magazine comes by post when I am sitting at my desk, then I quite simply leave it on the desk. If, in the midst of reading it, a visitor calls, I take it along to the sitting room and share it with my friend. If I forget to take it back to the study it remains in the sitting room. If the book is sufficiently interesting I may well take it up and read it in bed.

This natural way of arranging books naturally results in there being books in every room. When sufficient books have taken to inhabiting a room for a sufficient time it becomes necessary to erect shelves for them. There are, in consequence, bookshelves in every room.

This system has three advantages to commend it. First there is the beauty of irregularity. The books thus stand side by side, leather bound volumes beside paper covers, big heavy art books next to flimsy pamphlets on gardening – covering at a glance a vast swathe of human knowledge and interest.

Second there is the joy to be had from unexpected proximities. The detective novels of Dorothy Sayers beside Butler’s Lives of the Saints speak volumes about the relationship between hagiography and criminology. I noticed the other day that S.V. Keeling on Descartes had long been enjoying proximity with Gervase Matthew on Byzantine Aesthetics. And Tauno F. Mustaoja’s Middle English Syntax has been rubbing shoulders with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. One does not have to be hopelessly whimsical to conclude that they benefit from these random encounters. At least, I do; for when looking for one thing I am so easily distracted, and to my benefit, end up reading another.

Third, this system has the advantage of obvious convenience. For if one were to put all the books in a library, what would one read in the rest of the house? With this system I can always improve my mind even in the lavatory.

Books should never be classified. To classify them is a science; but not to classify them is an art. Each bookshelf, ideally, should be a universe. Everyone knows that the charm of old cities, like Paris or Vienna, lies in their mystery and elusiveness. They are interesting because, however long you spend there or however well you know them, you can never quite be certain what will turn up at the end of a narrow alley. There should be that same mystery and elusiveness to any sizeable collection of books. A shelf of books is a journey of reminiscence and encounter.

You may have picked up a volume, quite casually, on holiday in some distant place, and read it for the first time on a boat trip up the Yangtze or on a terrace overlooking the Adriatic. To chance upon it now is to bring back all the experiences which came with it. Or, again, suppose you know more or less where the book you want is to be found and on reaching the spot you find a gap in the shelf. You stand there, wondering to whom you had lent it and for what purpose. Did they benefit from it? Will they ever return it? The lending of books is a moral obligation. Though the book itself is a treasured possession and should be treated accordingly, the information which it contains is and should be open and public. One eighteenth-century book collector even suggested acquiring a second copy of each book specifically for the sake of lending to one’s friends.

Tidy libraries do not seem to me to be compatible with open minds. There is a certain sort of person, like the ones who collect cigarette cards or postage stamps, which delights in sets of things. Their bookshelves are neatly arranged with the complete works of everybody, or nobody; and there are no gaps between the books. That is the give away. One can easily conclude that those books enjoy only the occasional visit of the cleaning lady with her duster.

Untidy bookshelves, to the contrary, are the tribute that disorganization pays to catholicity. And if, occasionally by happy accident, there is assonance as well as dissonance, then it is a cause of delight. I recently discovered that chance had put James Walvin’s Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery, Giles Milton’s White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of North Africa’s One Million European Slaves and Ronald Segal’s Islam’s Black Slaves within a foot or so of each other. Now there is a coincidence of subject, but not of approach or politics!

I want to emphasise that this is my personal way, and I am not seeking anyone else’s approval, or even asking them to follow my example. I do not care what they do. I once visited the home of a senior clergyperson on a mission of bureaucracy to find the person’s living room full of what appeared to be a suite of remarkably uniform volumes with gold blocked spines. Closer inspection revealed them to be brown plastic casings for video recordings. But I am not critical – though I was somewhat surprised to find a complete set of every episode of Dr Who.

The book, incidentally, from which this article takes its title (one of the Dance to the Music of Time series of Anthony Powell) presently inhabits the top front bedroom. Where the rest of the series are strewn is anybody’s guess. But I recently encountered Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant on a sofa.