A few weeks ago at Emmanuel’s Zoom Coffee hour, my friend Meredith led a discussion of the very first places we would like to go post-pandemic. And I blurted out without hesitation: “I want to return to that happiest and most sacred of spaces: The Library of Congress!” It has been a year now and I miss it so much. Let this nerdy, nerdy bibliophile, tell you a story of why.
Last winter, I picked up a delicious but definitely unneeded book while on docent duty at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Tempting bookstore displays get me every time and this time it was a fascinating, plot-twisting history of the almighty Card Catalog(ue). (And just when did it become okay to drop the last two letters of this fabulous word?)
$35 for the library bound first edition of “The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures.” A book, not authored by human hands, but by THE LIBRARY itself. Hmm, a bit pricey you might say.
I put it back and walked away but just for a little while — the duration of my two hour shift. But awesome-sauce, turns out it was on sale! So, I snagged it for just $24.99!
Much more than a coffee table book, it is the illustrated history of logging literary collections since the dawn of the written word. Stories with tantalizing text and pictures and paintings. The likes of,
Rolled scrolls, with tags dangling from their ends, at the Library at Alexandria.
Cuneiform clay tablets tallying up a Sumerian bill of sale.
Blank-sided French playing cards, one for each book plundered in the revolution.
Literary ledgers listing titles in the style of Voltaire: by memory, reason, and imagination.
The Library of Congress Card Catalog “closed” in 1980 yielding to the computer age. But it is still reverently kept in the alcoves of the Main Reading Room for historical and research purposes.
And what a story each card can tell.
Subject, title, and author, of course. But also particular and personal details of each physical book.
Measurements. Color. Cover. Texture. Time. Place.
Walt Whitmans’s “Leaves of Grass” 1884. 404 pages. Bound in orange cloth.Inscribed by the author. Tucked in with the poetry on a shelf in the office.
On the cusp of the new year, I took stock of my bookcases. Cases that line every room in my house – save the kitchen and the bathrooms. And having acquired a castoff three-drawer card cabinet, I got the itch to catalog my own books.
To catalog them into what could be called an actual library.
Once upon a time, they were organized by subject, two-books deep until I weeded them back into single rows. Recently my decorator daughter arranged them by the hue of their spines. Colorful, yes, but it makes them a little harder to find.
Libraries are temples of learning; books borrowed for a while with a card. But I’ve acquired the bulk of my books with a debit card. The only return-carts to return them to are my very own shelves.
Rather than copy Dewey or follow Putnam, I was inclined to come up with a cataloging system of my own.
The “So many books, so little time” cataloging system.
Sorting through my library has helped me sort out my head. Surveying my books has inspired me to pause and take stock. To look both forward and back.
So, with no further ado, let me introduce the SMBSLT:JLP (my initials) cataloging system!
JLP.BB: Books about Books.
JLP.RE: Reading about Eating.
JLP.BBF: Books that belonged to my father.
JLP.BFC: Books I didn’t finish in college.
JLP.MH: Mysterious history.
JLP.HM: Historical mystery.
JLP.CC: Cultic classics.
JLP.AI: Astrophysics for idiots.
JLP.SFS: Science fiction for scientists.
JLP.LC: Liturgical choreography.
JLP.SB: Select biography.
JLP.VGS: Victorian ghost stories.
JLP.CL: Celtic lore.
JLP.IUT: Impressive unread titles.
JLP.PT: Ponderous tomes.
JLP.OTW: Obligatory theological works.
JLP.LCA: Lewis Carroll, all of his books, especially the “Annotated Alice”.
JLP.CBI: Children’s books I cannot part with.
JLP.FFU: Fancy folios slid under the coffee table.
JLP.BBB: Books I’ve bought but have yet to read.
JLP.BIH: Books I hope to write someday.
JLP.BBVB: Banned books, the very best ones.
JLP.FAVES: And the faves, of course: Anne Tyler, Shirley Jackson, Erik Larson, Anthony Trollope & Peter Tremayne.
(If you haven’t heard of them, check them out on Good Reads.)
I’ve got stacks of colored index cards and colored real life fountain pens. Doing this old-school, a year into it I am far from done! (And of course, I have a backup spreadsheet on my MAC.😊)
So, how about you? How about taking a little Lenten inventory of your literary tastes, a compilation of last year’s books you read, a measure of the stack beside your bed. Dust them, sort them, give them pride of place. Renew your library card. Put together a reading list of every kind: high brow and low brow, inspirational and educational, classics and pulp.
And explore between the covers of a book what the world, what the universe might have in store, chapter by chapter and page by page, and word by word. Every jot and tittle.
And so expand your soul and excite your mind.
So many books. So little time.
NOTE: This post previously appeared on Joani’s blog: Unorthodox&Unhinged: Tales of a Manic Christian.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog