A few weeks ago, we gave my sister’s room a new coat of paint and rearranged the furniture in my dad’s room which required taking all his books out of the shelves and piling them up in an unused corner in the lounge. Visiting my parents again this past weekend, my dad asked me if I could help him sorting his books back into the massive new bookshelf. I was instantly hooked: rummaging through my dad’s books, for hours on end! What larks! Acquainting oneself with someone else’s library is like looking at their old photos, and having the owner of the books there with you means that you’ll likely learn a lot about the books (mini-synopses, yay!), the role they’ve played in the owner’s life and the way the owner thinks about books and knowledge generally. And you get to witness genuine excitement as the owner beholds brilliant (whatever that may mean for them) books they had thought lost or that they never knew they owned in the first place. Hence my ‘intrigue-intrigue’ reaction to being asked to help with the books. (And I didn’t know about the dust then.)
I wanted to get started right after breakie. But it wasn’t so simple, for, as dad rightly pointed out: “There are several ways to do this. Do we want to sort them by genre or by date of acquisition or alphabetically?” True; I geekily added that we could use Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress, too, haha. (‘Dork!’ my sweetheart would say right now.) Or sort them by size as they do at Oxford. I always wonder how they do this and why this would make sense. Can’t be a library for generally browsing through. Same as libraries sorted by date of acquisition: what a stupid idea! Also doesn’t allow for browsing…ANYWAY.
We opted for the very simple genre approach and against any further categorising (no alphabetical ordering either), sat down cross-legged next to the big piles and started working our way through them. The categories we came up with are listed below. They immediately gives you and idea of my historical background and my dad’s literary preferences, so treat them carefully, this is personal. I list them from ‘contains most titles’ to the categories that are comprised by only a handful of books:
- science fiction, fantasy, utopian literature
- extra categories: Stanislav Lem
- the Dune saga
- Greg Bear’s books
- GDR novels incl. children’s literature
- FRG novels and children’s literature
- political non-fiction
- antiquarian books
- general non-fiction
My dad is obviously a science fiction reader. This I have always known. He has influenced the rest of the family in this way, too, and by that I don’t only mean the whole LOTR thing. My sister and I have each of us had phases during adolescence in which we read heaps of science fiction, too. Both of us still talk about reading Lem’s The Invincible because for both of us this was a formative reading experience. It features the best of Eastern bloc sci-fi lit: brilliant engineers, a journey into outer space, a complicating action which requires a scientific expedition and the saving of comrades’ lives, camaraderie with said comrades, weird creatures on strange planets, and vivid skin-crawling tension and action. AND a hefty dose of social and political criticism. Great stuff! I am super glad my dad decided that Lem should have his own category. My mum always says I’m my dad’s mirror image, and in terms of literary preferences there is some truth in that (in other ways, as well). My science fiction/fantasy corner is full of Jasper Fforde though. Different generation.
I was surprised my dad wanted to keep all of the GDR novels and our old children’s books. Some of them we had several copies of. The GDR classic Käuzchenkuhle which I always thought was pretty frightening – the story revolves around several men competing to catch an old and mysterious pike in a dark pond at night time and I think one of them men falls in and drowns – we had in paperback as well as hardcover. The hardcover was my dad’s and it bore the inscription: ‘In memory of our class trip ’67 to the Baltic Sea coast’; the paperback bore my primary school library seal, so clearly either my sister or me have ‘forgotten to return’ it back in the day, hehe. I took ‘my’ copy home with me.
Classifying books from the GDR era wasn’t easy for me, partly because I only knew some of the books by title and content, but partly also because I sort of wanted to sort the books according to ‘before the wall came down’ and ‘after the wall came down’. This would have meant that all the GDR titles would have landed in the same pretty undifferentiated pile which really doesn’t make sense. Instead we sorted them by origin of author regardless of the wall (one of them many ways in which we keep the boundaries alive I suppose…) and by genre. GDR novels have to do with GDR society, that’s what we decided. Because I didn’t know all these authors I would take a small pile from the big pile, hold each book out to my dad and ask him which group to put it in. There were only a very few books which my dad didn’t instantly recognise, and most of those clearly belonged to my mum. The story of an Australian GP’s journey of self-discovery among the Aboriginals in the outback would sit uneasily next to all the Polish sci-fi, eh.
The best-best-best thing was to hold up some dusty tome to my dad (they were all of them very dusty!) and his face lighting up in recognition of an amazing book. “Wow, I own this book? How great is that!” This happened often. There was one book I help up to my dad for categorising which baffled him especially. This is how it went: “Gargantum! _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (all along gobsmacked look) Gargantum! What a great book! I own this? I had no idea!” Dad was truly happy about this one and i was allowed to borrow it.
What did I learn about my dad in sorting through his books? First of all, it’s truly impressive how he remembers book contents. I mean, we were dealing with some 300 books there, and not only did he seem to remember most of the contents, he had even read all the books! I can’t say that this would be true for me was I to go through my little library today. I love books – obviously – and by that token I would buy books which I won’t have time to read for a little while yet. Or which seem to require a special mood for being truly enjoyable. ‘Their time will come, no doubt’, I tell myself. For my dad’s books, it’s already been there because he’s always liked reading. I also liked that he kept the GDR books even though we all of us have become very critical of the country we grew up in and sometimes have a hard time abiding by that strange social-realist tone of socialist literature. Nonetheless, the books tell us who we were, and my dad’s books tell him who he was and maybe who he is, too. And it’s the same for me in relation to my dad. I like knowing that he’s always been as quirky as he is now. You can tell these things from seeing booklings interacting with their books.
On the topic of booklings: My dad owned two copies of Walter Moers’ Rumo and gave me one of them. Moers is the creator of the creature known as bookling.