How to Organize a Public Library

I had the best Saturday afternoon last weekend. The Max and I pulled up to 18th/Bryant on our bikes, spied a small circle of bibliophiles gathered together, and had surveys thrust into our hands by the Pied Piper of the excursion, Michael Swaine. (Survey questions below, for the curious). Michael also gave us individually printed “library cards”, and a “map” of our tour, which was book text overlayed onto a map of the Mission District.

And then off we went, peeking into the private libraries of Janet & Greg, Vanessa, MaeSoon, and Katie, wending our way through the streets of the Mission. First up was the loft of Janet & Greg, where we ogled their shelves and learned of their obsession with ravens (the bird theme that followed us throughout the day). Greg read us a selection from a compilation of true tales from the Kentucky hills, replete with ghosts and death. As we scoured the shelves, we began to trade recommendations back and forth, and my phone was soon full of notes on authors to check out.
Next up was Vanessa’s room, 10 blocks away, with a rainbow Peace flag fluttering in the window. A charming artist fresh out of art school, she led us into her room where the walls were lined by 91 corks carved into delicate figurines. We plopped down on her floor and spread out our shared feast of chocolate, figs, bananas, cherries, and water. Michael read to us from Cooley Windsor’s Visit Me in California (great selection with Medusa’s snakes perusing the bookshelves), and Vanessa passed around her favorite book (Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red). She also recommended Liar’s Club (“I like liars.”) and Bel Canto, so I’ll give Anne Pratchett another try.
Vanessa was quite nervous about letting us into her space, which was totally understandable, 10 strangers converging on one’s private-most domain. I noted her shaking hands with interest, since she wields a box cutter so steadily to create these fantastic cork figurines. Max found a copy of the Encyclopedia of Ravens at Vanessa’s and thrust it into Janet’s eager hands, filled with interesting facts about the Tower of London’s Ravenmasters.


Our bellies full, we wandered down the street to MaeSoon’s gorgeous Victorian flat where the tall ceilings gave us room to expound further on our love of books. MaeSoon had 3 stops on her tour, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the den, all with various sorts of books. I found an awesome Scooby Doo book/coloring book that had this snooty lady declaiming against some character named Hillary. “Hillary is a fool!” In the background, people were discussing Obama’s choice of Biden for VP. Hmm.

At MaeSoon’s, I pulled You Can’t Win from the shelves and emphatically recommended it. In return, I got the counter-recommendation of Kafka Was The Rage.
Our merry band of librarians made our way to the final stop, a house Katie was house-sitting for the week as part of an apartment exchange for her place in NYC. Here, after a cursory glance at the stranger’s shelves, we shared our answers to the survey question about which book you would save from the fire. Greg: the practical answer, one of his library science textbooks; Michael: the homemade book of his father’s letters from his grandfather; Max: Drawings of Leonardi Da Vinci; Katie: That’s All Folks history of the Warner Brothers; Janet: a TC Boyle book; LZ: the Penguin Classics copy of Moby Dick that I read every year, especially on beach vacations because it fits so well in your hand and Melville is so damn good; Amanda: the galleys for her first book, The Long Haul; Vanessa: Autobiography of Red; Valerie and MaeSoon’s choices have fallen victim to my faulty memory. Michael then handed us “blank” sheets which had lemon juice drawings of books being burned – put in your oven for 10 minutes and out comes the drawing.
Michael’s survey has been posted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the past month(s), and he shared the aggregated data with us. I remember bits and pieces– like people organize their books alphabetical by author, no order, or his/hers; book everyone has: Bible/Harry Potter, book embarrassed by: The Fountainhead. He promised to email us all the charts and graphs and I’ll post ’em here.
Overall, it was one of the most incredible, community-building, participatory art pieces I’ve ever experienced. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts characterizes the tour as: “Ground Scores: Guided Tours of San Francisco Past and Personal … offers cartographical and audio portraits of sites that reveal the city’s forgotten histories, as well as mapping out invisible networks within the city’s infrastructure.” I feel it was much more than this, showing us just how easy it is to create community by opening up our houses and inviting in strangers with common interests.
Recommendations to come out of the afternoon:
* Wittgenstein
* Thomas Bernhard’s Correction
* Amanda Stern’s Long Haul (she was on the tour, and urged me to relax my “1st sentence rule” for her book)
* Cooley Windsor’s Visit Me in California
* Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red
* Liar’s Club
* Bel Canto
* That’s all folks!: The art of Warner Bros. animation
* TC Boyle
* James Salter’s Lightyears (another one to relax the 1st sentence rule on)
* Kafka was the Rage
* Elegant Universe
* David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green
* David Markson
The 10 Survey questions:
1. How many feet of books are in your home (how many shelves, stacks, and how long?)
2. How do you organize your books?
3. What percentage of books are kept on shelves, in stacks or piles, at your bedside, on the back of the toilet?
4. Everyone has this book, and I do too:
5. One book in my collection embarrasses me:
6. How many minutes a day do you read?
7. How many pages do you read before getting distracted?
8. If you’re not reading, what are you doing instead? How much time is spent doing that?
9. What percentage of your books have you read?
10. Someone is burning your books! You can save one book. What book is that?