The first time you run out of space for your books is a rite of passage for booklovers. It’s the moment that you realise the extent of your addiction to these papery worlds. It’s also a time of anxiously wondering what on earth you’ll do with all the books you have yet to accumulate. Double stacking, piles on the floor, and visits to the charity shop are really just temporary measures; the only satisfactory solution is to get a new bookcase.
Ikea has just released colourful limited editions of their Billy bookcases – thrilling news for spatially challenged booklovers. There are three new styles of this bestselling piece of Ikea design: one has an orange background, another a blue, and the last features a queasy-making black-and-white pattern. The Sunday Times Style magazine, where I first read of these new bookcases, say that the orange and blue backgrounds (they tactfully don’t comment on the black-and-white) would ‘set off the shifting shades’ of one’s books, which they suggest arranging by colour.
There was a time when I thought organising books by colour was the best idea ever, having only ever been impressed by the striking sight of spines ordered into a soothing rainbow. I was put off, however, by the look of disgust that crossed rather an intellectual friend’s face when he saw someone’s books so arranged. He was right to point out that, although visually attractive, this system pays no attention to the content of the book, and I grudgingly had to agree that it is a touch superficial to arrange all these worlds of imagination and information according only to their covers.
I arrange my books in various different ways – some are by genre (cookbooks together, guide books together, all those intellectual theory books from university together), some are by country which makes for a fun little literary world tour, but my favourite bookcase can best be thought of as a party bookcase. These shelves are where I keep my novels that aren’t set abroad (those ones go in the world tour bookcase). Rather than ordering them alphabetically or chronologically, as I used, I’ve taken to arranging them by personality. So I think about the books’ authors and characters and put them next to other books with which I think they’d get on.
At the moment, Elizabeth Bowen sits next to Iris Murdoch as I can imagine Jake Donoghue from Under the Net getting himself caught up in The Heat of the Day. Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship is beside Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, obviously. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor is next to The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, who I think would enjoy Angel, perhaps finding in Elizabeth Taylor a dry wit to match her own. On the other side is Jane Gardam’s companion novel to The Man in the Wooden Hat, Old Filth, which is next to Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, as the character Richard in the latter seems to me to have something of Eddie Feathers in him and I’m sure they’d get along.
I say at the moment because these combinations change. Jane Gardam might want a spell next to Dorothy Whipple, for instance, or Colm Tóibín might need a break from Woolf, indeed he might like to spend some time with Elizabeth Bowen. I love thinking of these books as a massive literary party – a host of ideas, characters and authors all conversing with each other. I should think they’d be thrilled with a new Ikea orange backdrop.
Whether we order our books by colour, or in some other idiosyncratic way, I find it very reassuring to see that bookcases are still a thriving part of interior design. Paper books are here to stay seems to be the message of these new Ikea limited editions. Until, that is, I looked at the website, where it says:
‘Fancy a wall-to-wall library or do you like to mix your TV or family photos with your books?’
Help! If people have stopped using bookcases for books and started to use them for their telly, then that really is the end.
Emily Rhodes blogs at EmilyBooks and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.