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How to organize your library

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So…we built a library.

Uh… let me rephrase that.

We hired a contractor to build a library.

Let me explain.

Ever since I was young, I was intoxicated with the notion of having a home library. After years of moving from one childhood home to the next and seeing the tender care that my parents took in building their libraries, I formulated in my mind just what was needed to make my dream into a reality. Heated hardwood floors covered by an Oriental rug, a stately yet ornate oak desk illuminated by a pull chain library lamp, built-in unstained walnut shelves with soaring crown molding, and natural light flooding in through the large window and inviting French doors. During the library’s planning, my mind’s eye was fixed on the grandeur of the Library of Congress and the warmth of Highclere Castle. And I couldn’t help feeling the penetrating gaze of my heroes (G.K. Chesterton, Winston Churchill, Antonin Scalia, William F. Buckley and, of course, my father) captured in photographs as they sat pensive or smiling, reading or simply thinking in their own beautiful libraries.

And so, as I recently considered just why a home library is so important to me (discussed in my essay, Why You Should Build a Library), I should have known the question (through comments on the piece and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) that would naturally and inevitably come next:

How did you organize it?

Now, to many out there, you may simply approach this question as my wife did. Just put the darn books on the shelf. But for true bibliophiles and intractable book nerds (like me), the choice and organization of books is at the heart of why you built the library in the first place. While the floor and shelves and doors and accoutrements are the sturdy bones and appealing flesh of a library, the books are its soul. And it is essential that that soul is properly crafted and cultivated.

So how do you do this?

First, I must say that the design of a library, its contents and its organization are a very personal affair – somewhat like a fingerprint. As one sits in his or her library, they find themselves surrounded with those minds and eras and causes that matter enough to keep in possession. It signals to visitors that a) I read, b) here is what I read, and c) let me explain why I read it. There is no correct way to do this, so let me offer my humble approach.

I have three primary themes (one for each wall) in my library: Catholic, Culture and Conservative.

Let me elaborate.

The Back Wall (Catholic)

Years ago, when teaching high school Catholic students about the sources of the Catholic Faith, I dragged dozens of books to our church meeting room. On an oversized table, I placed at the very center a Bible open to the Gospels, a Bible open to the Old Testament, a Bible open to the New Testament letters and a Catholic Catechism. The central source of the Catholic Faith is the story of Christ, the history and stories anticipating him, the history and letters reflecting upon him and the Church’s Tradition  (dogmas, encyclicals, exhortations and the Catechism) teaching about Christ. A first ring of books surrounds the Bibles and Catechism which are the works of the saints: St. Augustine’s Confessions, St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, St. Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, St. Thomas More’s Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, St. Josemaria Escriva’s The Way (and more). Moving outward, the next ring consists of Catholic apologists including G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Venerable Fulton Sheen, Thomas Merton, Georges Bernanos, Sigrid Undset, Christopher Dawson, Fr. James Schall and Bishop Robert Barron (among others). The final (and outermost ring) of books is what I call echoes of God in a secular world. These are the literary, artistic and architectural masterpieces that offer a beauty evocative of God. William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart richly contribute to this ring. When considering the series of concentric rings from Jesus Christ at the center to Mozart’s Requiem and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets on the periphery, I am reminded at just how broad and deep, how rich and full the Catholic Faith truly is.

The Catholic Wall of my library is based on this model. Here is what you will find:

The Bible, Catechism, works of (and about) Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, St. John Paul II, books by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Cardinal Francis George, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop George Pell, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Fr. Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar,  Fr. Romano Guardini, Fr. Luigi Giussani, Cardinal Avery Dulles, the works of the Sts. Augustine, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, Faustina, Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Blessed John Henry Newman, Venerable Fulton Sheen, Etienne Gilson, Blaise Pascal, Christopher Dawson, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Evelyn Waugh, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Flannery O’Connor, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, Charles Peguy, Sigrid Undset, Thomas Merton, Frank Sheed, Maisie Ward, Bishop Robert Barron, Fr. James Schall, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Spitzer, George Weigel, Alasdair MacIntyre, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, J.F. Powers, Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fr. Richard Rohr and Fr. Michael Casey (and others). Also included on the back wall are Protestant/Orthodox cousins C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Fredrich Buechner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

———

The Left Side Wall (Culture)

The Culture Wall emanates naturally out of the Catholic Wall because authentic culture is rooted in Truth and Truth emanates from the central source of Christ. The Culture Wall is comprised of the thinkers and novelists, the poets and historians who put their finger on the human condition: created with inherent dignity, prone to tragic fallibility and worthy of redemption… or as I have previously written, the extraordinary narrative of Dignity, Calling, Suffering and Grace.

The Culture Wall is comprised as follows:

Compendia of great literature, works by or about William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Michel de Montaigne, Dante Alighieri, John Milton, Edgar Allen Poe, John Hassler, Brian Doyle, poetry from Robert Frost, William Blake, Robert Browning, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney and essays and analysis from Samuel Johnson, Roger Scruton, Clive James, Paul Johnson, John Lukacs, Jacques Barzun, George Orwell, E.B. White, Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, John Updike, Daniel Boorstin. As an internist, I have a shelf on medical history and culture including works by and about Hippocrates, William Osler, Harvey Cushing, Rudolph Virchow, William Welch, Weir Mitchell, and Edmund Pellegrino.  Finally, an active shelf (a hodgepodge of books) includes works on (or by) Anthony Esolen, Allan Bloom, Gilbert Highet and many, many others.

———

The Right Side Wall (Conservative)

This is a wall devoted to conservative thinkers and leaders (this is conservative, not necessarily Republican) who have demonstrated sound thinking about culture, tradition and the limits of humanity. This wall has some natural outgrowth from the Catholic Wall and the Culture Wall, but deals more with specific events in history and cultural challenges. These are lions (or lionesses) of common sense, courage, wit and vision in an oftentimes misguided, sleepwalking society.

The Conservative Wall holds the following:

Works on the errors inherent in Socialism, Fascism and secular fundamentalism, the Supreme Court (specifically John Marshall, Joseph Story, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito), the works of Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch and Cicero, books about (or by) Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Charles De Gaulle, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Irving Babbitt, George Panichas, Orestes Brownson, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Thomas Sowell.

 ————–

Now, sheepishly, I have to admit that in two other rooms in my house, I have many more books pertaining to history (the Renaissance, Congress of Vienna, American Revolution, French Revolution, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Cold War, War on Terror), sports (Peyton Manning, Roger Federer, Roger Maris, Sandy Koufax and the great coaches of Bryant, Holtz, Landry, Lombardi and, of course, Saban), humor (Charlie Brown, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Bloom County), and the arts (Caravaggio, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Bernini, Pugin, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Balanchine, Olivier, O’Toole, Guinness, and Welles). And my daughters both have towering bedroom bookshelves (and each have a special shelf in the library) filled with joke books, fairy tales, mysteries, classics and comic books.

But I have to be honest. Having this many books, building a library and organizing can be a nakedly self-indulgent exercise. I have no illusions about that and I am guilty. But let me also say this. I know that someday when I pass away, my kids will find themselves muddling through these books – which ones to keep, which ones to toss. Perhaps when they do, they will come across the picture they drew in elementary school, or the worksheet with a particularly cute doodle which I kept unbeknownst to them to mark my book. Or perhaps they will read an underlined passage or a scrawled marginalia that I thought particularly important – sort of a message across ages. Or perhaps not. Whatever the case, they will know that I cherished reading and the wisdom to be gained by the particular inhabitants of the library with whom I chose to spend my time. In the end, I presume that, by sheer volume, many books will make their way to Goodwill, the library or an estate sale. And honestly, I hope to save them some of the trouble when years from now I go through the painful purge necessary for the inevitable downsizing. But for now and for the foreseeable future, the how of organizing my library will, at root, have the same motivation as the why. 

And that reason is my little girls.

Though my daughters may not fully appreciate the organizational scheme (Catholic, Culture, Conservative) of the library until they are older (or until they, years hence God willing, read this piece), that isn’t the point. Instead, I want them to pull out books over their maturing years and begin glimpsing answers to foundational questions. How did Pope Benedict XVI put his finger on the crisis of the age in his Dictatorship of Relativism homily? What common features (good and bad) did Plutarch find in politicians of ancient Rome and Greece that flawlessly diagnose politicians in our day? How did Churchill muster the courage to defy Hitler against insurmountable odds? How did William Shakespeare so exquisitely put melancholy and guilt and purpose and honor into such beautiful words? How did Chesterton winsomely skewer his opponents in debate and still remain their dear friends? What allowed Flannery O’Connor to articulate penetrating truths about God while dying from lupus on her family’s peacock farm? How could you hear a Gospel lesson for years only to have a transformed understanding of it after one glimpse of a Caravaggio painting?

In essence, this is Catholicism, Culture and Conservatism discovered innocently one question, one curiosity, one book at a time.

Yes.

The carpet is laid, the lamp is lit and the Churchill bust is on its way. The bones are in place, the flesh is filled out, but the soul is in the books.

How do you organize a library?

With love and joy…and your children in mind.


Photo credit: Me

 

 

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