By John Camp
My wife died a year and a half ago, of metastasized breast cancer. There was deep and continuing grief—I’m still sort of a sad guy—but there were also daily, practical things that had to be done after her death.
She was an immunologist, with a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, while I was a writer (we both had a lifelong fascination with nature, which is where our interests crossed.) She had a substantial working office in our home, while I worked out of a condo in downtown St. Paul.
Recently, I’ve been trying to consolidate my life—to get out of the condo, which I no longer need, because Susan’s office is there as a work space, right downstairs from my bedroom.
Which is where we get to the books.
Between us, we had literally thousands of books—well, a couple or three thousand, anyway. I never really counted. There were probably a thousand in my downtown office, and another couple of thousand in the house. Many of hers, the technical books, I had no use for: I could literally not understand a single page in them, except perhaps the author acknowledgments. It seemed foolish to keep them as memorabilia, when others might actually make some good use of them. So they went first: her colleagues took some, and others went to Goodwill.
Our joint books, mostly on such things as nature and gardening, I kept.
My books, on writing and on the arts—almost all on painting and photography—I’ve been trying to consolidate in my house. In doing that, I encountered a conceptual puzzle that I’ve run into before, in other library consolidations (there were several in our lives).
I have about 1,200 books on painting, and about 500 on photography. I tried to count them for this article, but kept losing track of where I was, for reasons I’ll mention below.
The art and photography books fell into two categories: "about," and "how-to." The how-to books went up to a small painting studio I have in an attic, and that was that. (Although I haven’t finished sorting them, so it may not be all that simple.)
The "about" books included guides, encyclopedias, general histories, period histories, style histories (Baroque, Mannerism, etc.), museum guide books (selections of works in a particular museum), art by nation (Russia!) and even by city (Santa Fe), theory, biographies and autobiographies, monographs, and a bewildering assortment of cross-over books: Monet and Modernism (file under "Monet" or "Modernism"?); Do you put the History of American Art with general histories, or at the beginning of a section on American art? What do I do with a photo book called Sex, which has aluminum covers held together with a spiral spring and is mostly pictures by a photographer I’ve never heard of, of a naked Madonna (the pop star, not the Madonna.) I’m inclined to put it with another book called Madonna Nudes 1979, which was made by another photographer I’ve never heard of…but what would I call the category?
This was complicated by the problem of limited space: the biggest books are huge: James Nachtwey's Inferno is fifteen inches high. Avedon's In the American West is fourteen inches high. On the other hand, Gregory Crewdson's Beneath the Roses is only twelve inches high, but is more than sixteen inches deep. It sticks out of the shelf like a photographic erection.
You see the problem? If you space your library shelves to accommodate all the books by height, enough are very tall that most of your space is wasted, because most of the books are normal-sized—that is, less than a foot high. Get rid of the tall books, and you could add an extra shelf to the wall.
The solution is to have an "over-sized book" shelf like they do in libraries, but then you wind up with most of those categories listed above, in two places—once in the regular sized books, and once in the over-sized.
At the moment, I’ve categorized them this way: Painting on one side, photos on the other.
Then for both:
Dictionaries, encyclopedias, general histories, theory, biographies, national art, city art, museum handbooks, periods, themes; a special American section, because I have a lot of books on American painting and photography; and then monographs, alphabetized.
Part of this project—not yet completed—resembles a kind of archaeology. How did I get four books by Annie Leibovitz? I don’t even like Annie Leibovitz. Yet, there they are, and I don’t remember buying a single one of them, and on the shelves at my office they’d never stood side-by-side.
Then there are the catalogs.
In the early '90s, I went to Sothebys, the New York auction house, out of curiosity, and wound up subscribing to their catalogs on photography sales. I'd get a few every year, for several years, and dump them in a pile when I was done looking at them, only to excavate them again during this reorganization. I haven't really decided whether to keep them or not—they may be headed for recycling—but they do provide an interesting snapshot of what photography prices were like as little as fifteen years ago. In the auction for Saturday, April 23, 1994, the David Hockney photo collage "Canal and Road, Kyoto," no. 6 in an edition of 10 (this was an original work of art), was estimated at $6,000 to $9,000. A famous vintage Wynn Bullock photo, entitled "Child in the Forest," was estimated at $2,500–$3,500. A terrific Joseph Sudek vintage still life was estimated at $3,000 to $5,000. There were some high prices: a famous Alfred Stieglitz photo of Georgia O’Keeffe, clutching a robe about her, was estimated at $200,000–$300,000. That might have been the most expensive photo in the catalog. But if you were to try to buy it today, you could probably add at least another zero to those estimates….
I've finished shuffling most of these books more-or-less into place, but I have to say, I’m not satisfied. I tried to count the books for this article, but kept failing, because I'd come across books that were obviously misplaced, at least, conceptually, and that would distract me from the running count.
What do I do with The Artist and the Camera, Degas to Picasso, which is a book about how painters use photography? What about The Downtown Book, a photo book on the New York art scene in the '90s? Painting or photography?
As I sit here looking down the shelves, these questions pop up like mushrooms.
Not that it’s unpleasant, at all. Reorganizing a library actually gives you a lot of time to think, and interesting things to think about.
Now, if I could just figure out what to do with the thrice-cursed Madonna books.
John Camp, 64, of St. Paul, Minnesota, is better known as John Sandford, a best-selling thriller writer—he's written twenty-seven novels, all of which appeared at one time or another on New York Times best-seller lists, several going to number one. He won a Pulitzer Prize in written journalism in 1986, and has a life-long interest in journalistic photography. He is the financial backer and sometime photographer for the Tel Rehov archaeological dig in Israel's Jordan Valley, under the sponsorship of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Google it if you'd like to volunteer.) Last January he embedded with the 2-147th Assault Helicopter Battalion in Iraq, flying into Baghdad and with a medical evac unit, and in September covered the demonstrations at the Republican National Convention. He has two children and a grandson, with another grandchild on the way.
Featured Comment by Matt Mills: "I used to work in the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Library, at the College of Santa Fe, and we frequently encountered similar problems. There is already a brilliant system, thoroughly worked out: Library of Congress number system. There are a bunch of libraries out there that use it; College of Santa Fe and University of Arizona both have extensive photography and art collections and if they have an entry for a book in their catalog, you can find it online and use their classifications and subject headings. If you're really intrepid, you can catalog all of your books and label them (our system was actually to put labels on blank bookmarks that stuck out of the top of the books). There's free software for libraries, even. I'm too lazy to do it for my own books, but then I only have a few hundred. Maybe I should before they grow into the thousands...."
Featured Comment by DSR: "John (and others): I feel your pain. I am up to about 1200 photo books (and about 1,000 others) and have built new bookshelves twice now to house them. The third bookshelf addition is not far in my future.
"When I was growing up, my beloved grandfather collected classical record albums and he owned several thousand. When he would take me record shopping, we would often bring something home only to find he already owned it! We laughed about that each time but I was always secretly dumbfounded how this could happen over and over. It was immaterial, since the record store was always happy to take back anything. After all, my grandfather was their very best customer. Well, I have become my Grandfather and often purchase books I already own. As often as not, the books I purchase come from Amazon, Powell's, or somewhere else halfway or more across the country. Not so easy to return. So I have a 'special' shelf (soon to be shelves) for duplicates. They do make excellent gifts. And in some cases, inadvertently shrewd investments.
"But I digress....
"The practical solution to your 'erection' problem was already suggested by Jakub. They get piled up on their sides and make good bookends!
"And by the way, I think I have probably read each and every one of the 27 books you have authored. Who knew you collected photo books? Very cool to run into you here."