Spectator – Carla Carlisle

Despite an Attention Deficit Disorder that would qualify me for Ritalin on a drip, I have little patches of organisation. For instance, although I have resisted (just) the temptation to write the call numbers on the spines, my books are arranged according to the Dewey Decimal system. Well, a relaxed version of that admirable system, created in the 1870s by Melville Dewey. The truth is, nothing gives me greater peace of mind than knowing that the books piled up in every room of this house and covering every surface, are part of a system of library classification that, should a crime be committed here, an observant Colombo would find remarkable.

In the downstairs study you will find the first category (000 General Knowledge) which includes the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica and almanacs whose predictions are no longer vital. Dictionaries (Old and New Oxford, 1982 Collins, Harrap’s French and English) share this section. In fact, they belong in 400 Languages and Grammar, but feel at home next to reference books (although the four-volume W. J. Bean work on trees and shrubs is upstairs in the Darwin room nestled among 500 Maths and Science).

Other categories where improvisation and leniency show themselves include 800 Literature, loosely grouped by chronology and author. I can assure you that Shakespeare is not on the same shelf as Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf is nowhere near Tom Wolfe. As for 900 History and Geography, I’m sorry to say that my husband has quarantined English history as far from American history as possible without calling in an architect. Ours is a fairly happy marriage, but his conjugal vows never embraced our libraries.

When I moved a row of his Anglo-Saxons up a few shelves, on the basis that they were not often read, I saw a haunting look of regret in his eyes. I realised that my first-hand accounts of the American Revolution (nine volumes) would have to reside an ocean away on the other side of the fireplace and never come into contact with the Anglo-Saxons, the Elizabethans, the Four Georges, not even Churchill who had an American mother. Not until I read Anne Fadiman’s tender essay ‘Marrying Libraries’ did I realise that ours is a common problem and did not mean that I and my books were on a Visitor’s Visa.

Volumes that come under the category 500 Medicine and Technology, discreetly hidden on a bottom shelf, include The GI Diet, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui and The Procrastinator’s Handbook. Presiding proudly above them in 100 Psychology and Philosophy are Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, books that once meant the world to me. But when Margaret Beckett, a woman who should have been sacked for stupefying ineptitude, is made the first female Foreign Secretary, the feminist literature begins to lose shelf space.

In fact, Dewey was vehemently anti-women’s rights. He was also an advocate of English language spelling reform and is responsible for catalog, the American spelling of the word catalogue. (He even changed his name from Melville Dewey to Melvil Dui.) But unlike Mrs Beckett who created cruel mayhem in the countryside, he created order out of the mayhem of book collections. Looking at Mrs Beckett sitting next to Condoleeza Rice, I feel it’s time for serious reclassification. I’ll start by moving de Beauvoir & Co to 200: Religions and Mythology.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on May 18, 2006.