Alphabet vs Genre

As a child, I remember progressing from the picture books to the chapter books at my local children’s library, The Warren in Marrickville. Upon my progression to the Junior Fiction section, disorganised child that I was, I made the decision to delve into the collection at the beginning. At A. And I would progress until I read every book in this, albeit tiny, branch library. I read Alcott’s Little Women, Brink’s Baby Island, Brown’s Flat Stanley, Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Ramona the Pest and as you could imagine the list goes on and on all the way to Zindel’s The Pigman. (As an aside, I spent about a year at E and F having hit the mother lode with Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Edward Eager and Eleanor Farjeon). I went on to use the same method when I matured from the children’s library and I moved up two flights of stairs to the then Adult Library at Marrickville Town Hall under the beautiful stained glass ceiling.

Once again, I started at A and progressed slowly through the collection. Serendipity ruled for me. And browsing shelves alphabetically, whether in a bookshop or a library was great because, unlike Dewey, it was simple and unbiased. I just read whatever caught my fancy. Steven King, Leon Uris, Wilbur Smith, Isabelle Allende, Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer all interfiled in the one big area. Horror, literature, romance, fantasy all there. Despite this, I still discovered my favourite genre, I still found my favourite romance authors. This was objective shelving, for while the library may not pass judgements on different genres, people sometimes do, and link a writer’s, and even reader’s quality, to their preferred genre.

Over the last 10 years, libraries have seen a shift in the layout of their spaces and the way people access their shelves. There is a lot more display space, bookshop layout is aspired towards, and this is all very positive as it makes libraries much more attractive and appealing places to their members. But I am ambivalent about the reorginisation of books according to the genre that they fall in. Unlike retailers, libraries are not about profit margins but about unbiased access to information and cultural materials. Selection may be unbiased but we are seeing a move towards subjective organisation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of genre fiction. Over the last 30 years my reading has seen me devour comics, horror, literature, children’s fiction and, of course my mainstay fiction favourite, romance. To add to these, I will occasionally dabble in fantasy, science fiction and my least favourite (and only because I’m squeamish), crime. But I found my favourites by browsing unbiased shelves. And much as I love walking into my favourite bookshops and libraries and heading straight to the romance shelves I often wonder about the people who will miss out on reading a fabulous romance because they don’t want to be seen in the romance section or the science fiction fan who just doesn’t want to read literary work. Somehow, I feel that it is like apartheid for books (harsh words, I know!).

For, heaven forbid Dean R Koontz is shelved near Milan Kundera, or Roald Dahl to be seen alongside Victoria Dahl, or Howard Jacobson grace the same shelf as Eloisa James. And then, what of the books that sit across genres such as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse and J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books that sit comfortably in both fantasy or romance genres. Or benchmark setting authors such as Margaret Atwood – does she sit in literature or speculative fiction. Genre-based shelving endorses a classification of fiction that may not be needed.

I know that as a child, I loved discovering books and that none of them had genre labels. As an adult, I am struggling to decide upon whether I like the genrification of libraries or if I would like fiction, to once again, be a roll call of authors on shelves.

* strikethrough added a few years after I first posted this

The Ick Guide on when to discard books

I love reading books. I love reading new books, old books, used books and borrowed books. I love reading well thumbed books and spine unbroken books, big books, tiny books, paperback and hardback books, red books, blue books and dammit! I will even read green books!

However, there comes a time that you need to recognise that a book should be discarded. Yep, that’s right. Sent into that big paper recycling plant in the sky. Because, Dear reader, we all know that we have “ick” boundaries. I have met many people who refuse to use libraries because of “germs” or “but who knows what the previous person was doing with that book” and as a seasoned librarian I can understand that sentiment. Now, some of these ick boundaries will vary from person to person. I personally don’t mind a little bit of sand in my beach novel but it may cross your boundary of ick acceptance. So, here is a list that all book owners, lenders (yep – that’s you too Dear Libraries) and booksellers should pay heed.

Discard if your book has any of the following properties:

1. Odour Ick: You know that sand in my beach read that I don’t mind. 2 years later that sand will give off an eau de pisce…..which is not good at all. Any smell strong enough to make you reel your head back upon opening that first page is an indicator that the book must go – and I don’t care if the smell is your fave L’eau D’Issey.

2. Hair Ick: Hair of any sort should never be in or on a book. Unless  it’s a Princess touch and feel board book and even then – it will have cooties.

3. Tactile Ick: Unfortunately this comes in several forms.

3.1  Cover Ick. You pull a book off the shelf and immediately your fingers touch something other than paper or covering plastic. They touch a film…a film of something unidentifiable. It may be brown and grimy (very common amongst libraries whose staff persist on using sticky tape on the covers of books rather than securing notes/reservation notices with paper and elastic bands – not that it’s a bugbear of mine or anything like that – gee I was trained well by those Randwick librarians in the early 90’s), or it is wet. Wet when it is water isn’t particularly good but it is better than when wet that is not water.

3.2 Internal Ick: That’s right. This book is perfectly fine. You’re reading it and you’re totally engaged. Then, upon turning to page 230 just as it’s a cliff hanger, sex scene, gun at the temple, alien abduction showdown with a unicorn, you turn the page and there is something…something gracing the pages. It could be grimy (soil, sand), edible (banana, honey), movable (lice, cockroach) or it could just be pages that are stuck together. Now, you the reader, depending on where in the story these pages became stuck, will be able to ascertain as to the nature of what has stuck them together. But more on that in Point 4.

When you are faced with tactile ick – it’s time to discard the book.

4. Bodily fluid ick: From the less inocuous snot, ear wax or baby saliva to the gross levels of urine, faeces or semen, if you suspect that bodily fluid irk is present on the covers or between the pages of the book you are reading follow these instructions: drop the book; holler “ick”; don some industrial strength gloves. If the book is yours throw it away. If it is not your book place it in a plastic bag, seal it and report it to whoever you borrowed it from. And yes – that may mean your lovely librarians who will gag as they record the barcode, take it off your record and discard of the offending book ASAP.

5. Wet Ick: So you were reading in the bathtub again. Only this time the book fell in. Or you’re at the beach and you haven’t noticed the tide come in. You now own a sopping wet book. Of course, there are methods to salvage a wet book but unless it is an out of print, rare book (and if it is what the hell were you thinking reading it in the bath/at the beach you bloody idiot) don’t bother. The cost of replacing the book will be much less bother. Though, if you insist, here is a guide on how to dry wet books.

6. Mould Ick: This is directly related to 5. Wet Ick. If you have tried to salvage wet ick and left moisture mould ick ensues. And this is, let’s say, icky. Worst part is that mould spreads so even if the rest of your books weren’t wet – the mould will still get to them. Get rid of it!

7. Eaten Ick: I don’t like tomato sauce, mustard, jam, banana, coffee or steak with my books. I like my books without any condiments to be honest. And frankly, I do not like my books to have been eaten by rodents either. Another surefire discarding moment.

So when if comes down to it, when you are choosing a book to read, or if you work in a library and you are reshelving items, look at the tattered book in your hand and think to yourself; Would I read this in bed? Would I read this over a coffee (which may in fact be the reason that no-one will want to read it as the previous coffee drinker got a bit bloody excited while reading, slushed coffee and hid the evidence)? Would I give this book to my immuno-suppressed, living in a bubble neighbour? If the answer is No! Get rid of it. And if you are wailing “but it’s my favourite”, “it’s a first edition”, “the author personally signed it for me” or “but my granny gave me that book” I have several things to say:

1. Take better care of your things (of course, the exception to this rule is if the damage is due to fire, flood, plague and all other cataclysmic disasters).

2. Buy a new book. will help you with a price comparison and suggested retailers.

3. Buy a second hand one

3. Cope. Live life without it.

I haven’t been exhaustive as I thought that I would avoid the whole age and use aspect of icks because it is done so well at Awful Library Books. I recommend you turn to them for guidance in this area.

So for the salvation of all readers, for the salvation of your own personal bookshelves and your own sanity (dammit! where is that fishy smell coming from!) use this Ick Guide, discard offending books and buy yourself some brand-spanking new copies.

Now some of you may ask about the falling apart from having been read so many times ick. This is not ick. This is love. This is deep, abiding love. And even the crooked book can be read.


PS Note to collection development librarians reading this – feel free to use this as part of your weeding guide. You’re welcome!

Hypothetical dilemma

You purchase an ebook from the publisher and you don’t realise that the format is not compatible to any of your portable reading devices other than your pc.

But someone tells you where you can find a pirated copy of said ebook.

  • Do you grab this book – remember you have paid for it (receipt & proof of purchase etc)?
  • Do you contact the publisher and start them thinking about multi-format options?
  • Do you report this pirate site?

My 2 bob worth is that until a multilateral model is developed covering format and regional restrictions there will be more “greying” of peoples’ ethical stance.

What would you do?