Virginia Woolf’s Niece & A Shelf Arrangement Diary

I am reading and loving The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Five, 1936-1945.  In college I read A Writer’s Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf, and admired this short fascinating volume.  She writes so elegantly:  she could make a notebook of scribbled website urls look interesting.  Thus I must share an amusing quotation from an entry which mentions my favorite book, War and Peace.

On January 11, 1936, Woolf recorded her niece’s short visit.  “Ann popped in suddenly after lunch; bare legs, socks, tousled hair; wanted to borrow the second vol. of War & Peace for Judith who’s had her tonsils out.”

Do nieces read War and Peace these days?  Perhaps secretly. At my house a visit from a niece would go more like this:  “Ann popped in suddenly after lunch; patched jeans, no socks, disheveled hair; wanted to borrow Peyton Place because she needed a trashy read after a chemistry midterm.”

Peyton Place, War and Peace–same number of syllables–I must be a genius!

I gave away two of my four copies of War and Peace, my favorite novel, because they were oversized and hurt my wrists to hold!


Speaking of diaries, here is a Diary of a Shelf Arranger.

Years ago all my books fit in one bookcase.

Then my husband and  I “colonized” a run-down neighborhood by buying a cheap house.  The house was big and cold, and we wore jackets and fingerless gloves inside, but at least we had room for books.  In our love of collecting books, we drove all over the midwest and haunted used bookstores (including The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City) , library sales (we once went to one in Winona, Minnesota), and Borders everywhere.  All those old library books with mylar covers and tacky stickers on the spine!  And a copy of Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger for 50% off!

Years later, we have so many books.  And most have that  “worn-out old-book” look because they were already ancient when we bought them.

So should I arrange them in the style of  favorite used bookstores?  Or would that be too formal  for home life?

Here are a couple of methods I’m considering:

1. Shelf all the Folio Society books together (they do this at Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha).  The FS volumes are tall and oversized and look better together.   But if I put them together, I’ll break up my Thomas Hardy collection. Turns out I have the FS version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, illustrated with woodcuts by Peter Reddick. Did I buy it at  Jackson Street Booksellers?  I’d forgotten I had it.  I also have a Modern Library paperback of Tess, a 1950s Heritage Press edition with illustrations, and a Penguin Hardcover Classic.

Should I start a separate Tess section?

2. Create a Thomas Hardy section.  I HAD NO IDEA WE HAD SO MUCH THOMAS HARDY UNTIL I SHELVED ALL OUR BOOKS. A Penguin paperback and an Everyman’s Library hardback of The Woodlanders;  two Signets (one my husband’s) and an Oxford paperback of Jude the Obscure; three paperback copies and a Heritage Press hardback of my favorite, The Master of Casterbridge; Selected Poems and Collected Poems; and a few  Pocket Book collections of short stories with minuscule print  We also have a battered copy of The Well-Beloved holding up one of our windows.

3.  If I Create a Thomas Hardy section, I have to create a Dickens section, a Jane Austen section, a John Updike section, etc. 

4.  But wouldn’t it be better to go by centuries?  Shakespeare and Milton, 18th century, first half of 19th century, second half of 19th century, first half of 20th century, etc.  That’s the way I think of books–in terms of centuries!

5.  Put all the Library of America editions together.  That probably wouldn’t work, though.  I don’t have that many.

 I haven’t implemented any of these yet.   Any suggestions?  After I shelve them, I want to catalogue them…on index cards.

15 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf’s Niece & A Shelf Arrangement Diary”

  1. Is this your other blog re-vamped so all the older postings are still here, or have you started out fresh and new and left the other postings behind?

  2. I shelve like a library does: alphabetically by author or, for non-fiction, by subject. I find that works best for me.
    By the way, my two-drawer antique oak library card catalog is full. That’s where I file my book reviews, on 3 x 5 cards. If you happen to find a nice empty one, let me know!

    1. Oh, I love it that you have a library card catalog! It was so fun walking into the library and seeing all those wooden drawers. It was a great pleasure. And now….computers. Why did they ever get rid of the card catalogs? Couldn’t they have done both?

  3. What a coincidence that you are reading the Woolf Diary Vol. 5. I am in the beginning stages of trying to read World War 2 as it began, London War Notes (Panter Downes) along with the same days in Few Eggs and No Oranges (Hodgdon), Witness to War (Aldrich), Berlin Diary (Shirer), Nella Last’s War, and the Woolf Vol. 5 for the 1939-41 years. Not sure how far I am going to get but wouldnt it be wonderful to even get to 1941! I would like to be able to see it through many lenses and maybe achieve a tiny fleeting glimmer of what it was like.

    1. That sounds like so much fun! Well, not the war part, but the reading about it. And I think these diaries give a better sense of what went on better than the histories sometimes. I loved Nella Last’s War.

  4. When I was younger I loved to organize books. My wife has taken over that activity these days. In addition to fiction we have a lot of non – fiction. Thus, we have books divided into sections, but within the sections they are in alphabetical order. I like all your ideas but in the end I think that I would stick with alphabetical.

    War and Peace might be a tough slog for your niece. Perhaps starting with something literary but contemporary might be s good way to go.

    1. Alphabetical makes the most sense, and we do have about half our bookcases in alphabetical order. Yes, it would take quite a while to arrange them by centuries or some other system that might be okay if we had fewer bookcases!

      Yes, I dearly love War and Peace, but I did read a piece at Bustle today by a young woman who read War and Peace this year, one of her resolutions, and hated it! So, yes, contemporary is a good thing.

  5. Although I’m sure it would be a lot of work, it would also relieve some of the pressure, to simply decide to try it one way (perhaps the centuries plan, if that’s really how you think of books and Mr. ThornfieldHall doesn’t object) while telling yourself that you can try it another way next year if you don’t love it after all. After all, how will you know until you try? And, meanwhile, you will get even better acquainted with the books on your shelves (which do become a little unfamiliar to us when we are distracted by collecting them rather than reading them – or maybe that’s just me)!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I do think an experiment would be good, and as you say I don’t have to keep them that way. Perhaps I should do a couple of bookcases by centuries and see if it works out. It is a real muddle right now: Lillian Jackson Braun’s cat books next to the Brontes!

  6. Do read Woolf’s journals in conjunction with her letters. She quite often says something complementary to her correspondent only then to viciously attack them in private. It can be fascinating.

    1. Oh, what a good idea! I do have a selection of her letters, but I can see the thing to do would be to read the letters of the same period. I feel a trip to the university library coming on…

      1. Yes, I used to read a month in the letters to get her public reactions and then the same month in the journals to get her real reactions to the people she was encountering.

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