Strange and incongruous relation

My bookshelves are overflowing, and always have been. And it’s not just the shelves. As I write this, there are three separate piles of books on my desk. I’ve read many of these books. They are old friends. Seeing their spines reminds me why I love them, what I learned from them. I have yet to read many of these books. Seeing their spines reminds me what inspired me to buy them and all the amazing things I have yet to learn, yet to experience.

There are cycles at work. If I read a book and it doesn’t resonate with me, I put it in the Little Free Library in our front yard so that a stranger might crack it open to discover that it’s the perfect book for them. If a friend visits and I realize I’ve got something they need to read, I snatch it off the shelf and send it away with them. If I listen to an audiobook or read an ebook and fall in love with it, I pick up a physical copy to have an artifact that will summon the story in my mind whenever it catches my eye.

Unlike those at a library, my books have no organizing principle. They are not categorized by genre or publication date or title or author name or size or color or when I bought them or whether I’ve read them. You might find Cloud Atlas nestled up against Flash Boys, or Unaccustomed Earth hiding between “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and Sourdough. When I choose a book to read, I put it back somewhere else. Sometimes I grab a few books on a whim and rearrange them randomly throughout the shelves.

This apparent disorder allows stories to mix and mingle. No. That’s not quite right. These books, however much they mean to me, aren’t doing the mixing and mingling. They are beautifully crafted objects, but they are objects, and inert. Rather, the idiosyncratic and evolving arrangements transform the shelves into more than a place to store or display books. The bookshelves become an engine for curiosity and creativity. Whenever I enter the room and my gaze falls across them, they conjure a mandala of stories, ideas, and feelings within me—everything juxtaposed and interpolated in strange and incongruous relation.

So I guess there is an organizing principle after all: Foment literary anarchy. Let all those shuffling spines unconsciously challenge me to forge new connections, to trace lines between disparate concepts, to flex my imagination to encompass ever-expanding constellations of possibility, to fall in love with reading over and over again.


Complement with Look to the liminal, these interviews with my favorite authors, and my book recommendations.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.