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Alphabetisation as art?

July 2, 2010

I just finished moving into a new house, and am only now beginning to wind down. It’s been three or four days of hectic stuff-doing over here: frantic packing, frantic moving, frantic unpacking and doing all the things that have to happen before New House is actually livable – make the bed, sort out the utility bills, go shopping, rearrange the furniture, defrost the freezer so there’s actually room to put things in it, and so on, and so on.

The hardest part of my stuff to move is always the books. I currently own two hundred and fifty-four of them, which pack down into six crates and the bottom layer of an IKEA bag. I can only expect to acquire more as life goes on; like a lot of people, I appear to be constitutionally incapable of getting rid of the things, even the ones that I know I’ll never read again. I have two copies of The Turn of the Screw: we studied it in first year, I briefly lost my copy, bought another one, and then (inevitably) found the first one as soon as I came home with it. They are identical. And yet I still haven’t got rid of the duplicate because . . . well, because.

I sort my books into ‘criticism and reference’, ‘medieval’, ‘Shakespeare’, ‘poetry’ and ‘general’. It makes it easier for me to find particular things. (I also like that I have enough books about Shakespeare, the medieval period, etc. for them to require their own sections.) The ‘general’ section contains everything that wouldn’t go into any of the others, and is sorted alphabetically by author’s surname. It’s a system I adopted a couple of years ago, on first moving to university, and it has undoubted practical advantages; but it also enables the collection to function as a sort of proto-artwork in its own right. Sort of. Bear with me here.

First, let me take a brief diversion into poetry – specifically, into rhyme. Smoothly done rhyme is nice to hear; complex or contorted rhymes make us laugh. But apart from the simple auditory value of the rhyme, a clever poet can exploit rhyme to link otherwise unconnected words/ideas in the reader’s mind. Two words which have nothing to do with one another conceptually can be made related, can demand to be considered together, by emphasis on the end-sound they happen to share. As Don Paterson puts it (quoted in Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, p.125),

Rhyme always unifies sense […] it can trick a logic from the shadows where one would not otherwise have existed.

For an example of this logical trickery in action, have a look at this snippet from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. (Middle English follows the Ellesmere MS, text from here; Modern English glosses by yours truly.) This piece comes from Chaucer’s description of the Monk, who generally seems to be rather more worldly than he should be, fond of drinking, hunting and rich life and rather lax as regards following the Benedictine Rule.

This ilke [same] Monk leet [let] olde thynges pace [go],
And heeld [went] after the newe world the space [the freedom of the new].
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen [He didn’t give a plucked chicken (as in ‘didn’t give a fig’) for that text]
That seith that hunters beth [are] nat hooly men;
Ne [Nor] that a Monk whan he is recchelees [reckless]
Is likned til a fissh þat [that] is waterlees [waterless]
This is to seyn [say] a Monk out of his Cloystre;
But thilke [that same] text heeld he nat worth an Oystre.

The final rhyming couplet there is the perfect example. Cloisters, oysters: two words related by nothing other than a coincidence of sound, and yet Chaucer exploits that sound-coincidence to set up a contrast between what the Monk should be thinking about (cloisters) and what he likely is thinking about (oysters). It parallels the previous rhyme of pulled hen/holy men, which has a similar contrast. The distinctive feature of both oysters and cloisters is their closedness, and yet even today the one is a powerful symbol of spiritual retreat while the other is still an emblem of worldly (potentially gluttonous) indulgence. It’s impossible to say how much of this Chaucer intended, but it still proves my point: this rhyming business can make you think.

A good poet can create this kind of connection deliberately, with finesse and practice, but as with all deliberate processes, it can be replicated – just with a much worse hit-rate – by the machinations of random chance. (There are some corking rhyming-couplets to be found scattered through the output of the Cento Generator, for example.)

In the case of my bookshelf, the imposition of an external and arbitrary (relative to the content of the books, anyway) sorting system threw up some of the same kinds of intriguing juxtapositions as happen when you pair up words based solely on their sounds. It literally places next to one another authors separated by vast historical and generic gulfs, who have nothing in common, and invites you to consider them together.

On my bookshelf, Douglas Adams sits next to Aeschylus and Bertholt Brecht next to Bill Bryson. The realist magic of Neil Gaiman rubs shoulders with the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. On the second shelf, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, centred around tales of corporatist and apocalyptic dystopias, leans against Orwell’s 1984; a little further along, Perec adjoins Pratchett and Sheridan Sophocles – masters of wordplay, masters of drama. At the far end of the alphabet, a chance of nomenclature puts Woolf next to Wollstonecraft.

It’s fascinating.


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