Classifying Books is a Science,
But Not to Classify Them is an Art
Lin Yutang
Mrs. Yao Ying wrote a charming article on her way of arranging books in her library, which so coincided with mine that, had I ever published a word on the subject or ever seen her, I should have accused her of stealing my ideas. [1]
I therefore wrote a long editorial postscript to it – I wish editors would write long postscripts – showing how dangerously near her theory came to mine. In fact, we have only one common theory, which is roughly as follows (translated from her article):
Of course, it’s all right for public and college libraries to have a catalogue system, and have the books properly labelled and classified, either according to the Dewey or the Y. W. Wong system. But this is manifestly impossible with a poor scholar, who hasn’t complete library editions to show off, and who often occupies a small terrace house in Shanghai or Nanking. This terrace house generally consists of a dining-room, a parlour, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and he is lucky if he or she has a study of his or her own [this grammatical nuisance exists only in the translation, and not in the original]. Besides, his or her small collection is generally of the personal sort, likely to be strong in his or her favourite authors and deficient in others. What, then, is he, or she, going to do about it?
I don’t know about others, but this is my way [I am glad of this transition from the third to the first person, for the English language has unaccountably forgotten to distinguish a masculine and a feminine “I” and “my”].
My way is the natural way. For instance, when a book or magazine comes by post when I am sitting at a desk, then I leave it at the desk. If, in the midst of reading it, a visitor calls, then I bring it along to the parlour, and share it with my friend. When the friend is gone, if I forget to take it back, then I leave it in the parlour. But sometimes the conversation has been so interesting that I am not quite ready for sleep yet, but only want to relax a little; then I bring it upstairs and read it in bed. If the book can sustain my interest, then I read on, but if the interest slacks, then I can conveniently use it as pillow. This is what I call the natural way, which may be roughly defined as “the way of leaving books where they are”. I can’t even say there is any “favourite” place for my books.
The logical consequence of this system is, of course, that there are books and magazines all over the place, on the bed, on the sofa, in the dining-room, in the sideboard, near the washstand in the lavatory, etc., giving thus a richness of impression unattainable by the Dewey or the Y. W. Wong system.
This System has three advantages to recommend it. First, there is beauty of irregularity. The books thus stand side by side, leather-bound editions, paper covers, Chinese, English, big heavy volumes, and light artistic copies, some with pictures of medieval heroes, others with nude modem girls, all mixed up in a wild profusion of learning, covering at a glance the whole course of human history.
Second, there is richness and variety of interest. I let a volume on philosophy stand side by side with a treatise on natural science, and let a humorous booklet rub shoulders with some perfectly well-meaning moral-uplifters. They just form a motley company, pretending to hold diverse opinions with each other and get involved, in my fancy, in some hot mythological debate for my amusement. Third, this system has the advantage of obvious convenience. For if one were to put all the books in the library, one would, obviously, have nothing to read in the parlour. With this system I can always improve my mind even in the toilet.
Only I wish to say that this is merely my personal way, and I am not seeking for other people’s approval, or asking them to follow my example. I am writing this merely because my visitors often shake their heads or heave a long sigh when they see the way I live. As I have not asked them, I do not know whether it is a sigh of disapproval or sigh of admiration…. But I don’t care.
The foregoing may well serve as a good example of the familiar essay in China to-day. It has the lightness of touch of the old Chinese essay and the careless ease of the modem. The following is a brief translation of my long editorial postscript. I said:
When I received this manuscript, the title caught my attention as if somebody had stolen a great treasure from me, and when I read on, I discovered, to my great amazement, that my favourite theory on the collection and arrangement of books had been already discovered simultaneously by an independent worker. How can I therefore help saying something on the subject? I know that reading is a refined occupation, but since reading came under the control of college registrars, it has degenerated into a cheap, vulgar, mercantile business. The collection of books, too, used to be a refined pastime, but now things have sadly changed, since the nouveaux riches came in for this line of antiquarian business. These people always have complete works of this author and complete editions of that writer, bound in handsome morocco and so well kept in nice glass cases, which form part of their show to their friends. But when I look at their shelves, there are never any blank spaces or missing volumes, which fact shows they have never been touched except by their servant for the purpose of cleaning and dusting. There are no dog ears, no finger marks, no accidentally dropped cigarette ashes, no carefully blue-pencilled emendations, and no maple leaves between the covers, but plenty of uncut pages.[2]
So it seems even the collection of books has degenerated into a vulgar fashion also. Hsu Hsieh of the Ming dynasty wrote an article, “On Old Inkstones”, exposing the whole vulgarity of collecting curios, and now Miss Yao has carried the idea forward to the collection of books, and my heart feels tickled. It seems if only you would say what you really think, there must always be others in the world who agree with you.
The Y. W. Wong system is all very fine for public libraries, but what have they to do with a poor scholar’s study? We must have a different principle, that pointed out by the author of Fou-sheng-liu-chi, namely, that of “showing the small in the big, showing the big in the small, meeting the real in the unreal and meeting the unreal in the real”. The mentioned author was giving his private opinions on a poor scholar’s house and garden arrangements, but the principle really holds good with regard to the arrangement of books. With the wise application of this principle, you can transform a poor scholar’s library into a veritable unexplored continent. My theory is this:
Books should never be classified. To classify them is a science, but not to classify them is an art.
Your five-foot bookshelf should be a little universe in itself. This effect is achieved by letting a book of poems incline on a scientific paper, and allowing a detective story to keep company with a volume of Guyau. So arranged the five-loot shelf becomes a rich shelf, intriguing your fancy. On the other hand, if the shelf is occupied by a set of Ssema Kuang’s Mirror of History, then in moments when you do not feel inclined to look into the Mirror of History, the shelf can have no meaning for you, and it becomes a poor shelf, bare to the bones. Everyone knows that women’s charm lies in their mystery and elusiveness, and old cities like Paris and Vienna are so interesting because after staying there for ten years, you never quite know what may turn up in a narrow alley. The same thing is true of a library. There should be that mystery and elusiveness which comes from the fact that you are never quite sure what you have hidden on that particular shelf some months or years ago.
All books must have their individuality and must not have the same binding. That is why I never cared to buy the Sse-pu-pei-yao or Sse-pu-ts’ung-K’an. Their individuality partly comes from their appearance and partly from the circumstances of the purchase. You may have picked the volume up casually in a small town in Anhui while on a summer tour, or someone may have been trying to bid higher than you did for the volume. Now suppose the books have been bought and placed on a shelf in their natural way, and you have an occasion to look up Wang Kuowei’s History of Yuan Dramas, a small, tiny volume. You start out as if on a hunt, and look for it on top and below, on the east and on the west, and when you have found it, you have really found it, and not just taken it. A few drops of perspiration are already formed on your brow and you feel as happy as a hunter on a lucky trip. Or perhaps, you have just tracked it down to its lair, and just as you are looking for the volume three you want, you discover it has disappeared again. You stand there, transfixed for a moment, wondering whom you have lent it to, and heave a great sigh of regret, like a schoolboy just missing a bird he nearly caught in his hand. In this way, a veil of mystery and charm will for ever hang over your library, and you will never know what you are going to find. In short, your library will possess the elusiveness of women and the mystery of great cities.
Some years ago I met a fellow teacher in Tsing Hua, who had a “library”, which consisted only of one case and a half of books, but which were properly labelled and classified, from one to one thousand, according to the American Library Association system. When I asked him about a history of economics, he could at once tell me, with great pride, that it was “580.73A”. He was very proud of his American efficiency. He was a true American-returned student, and by that I mean no compliment, either.
[1] I published in Jen Chien Shih an article by Miss Yao Ying – she is really a Mrs.,  but she is not Mrs. Yao Ying, and in English there seems no way to refer to a lady’s name without revealing whether she is married or not. There is the further nuisance of referring to a well-known woman writer and having to drop her first name the moment you introduce the word “Mrs.”. In China, at least, we can use the term nu-ssu without thus committing ourselves, in the same way that we can refer to a third person without distinguishing between “he” and “she” – measure of sexual equality which obtains only in the land of Cathay. Couldn’t we, I wonder, just address a person by a generic “M” and leave out of our curiosity whether it’s a married or unmarried “he” or a married or unmarried “she”? (Lin Yutang)
[2] “Uncut pages”. It was usual up to the 1960s to sell books with leaves folded but uncut. The books were printed in large leaves which included up to 8 pages each. The volumes were bound with uncut pages. Before reading them, the reader had to use a knife to separate the pages. (CCA)
                  A book with uncut pages
The above article was published by the associated websites on 01 August 2020. The text is reproduced from the book “With Love and Irony”, by Blue Ribbon Books, Garden City, New York, 1945 (copyright 1934), 291 pp., see pp. 92-98. In our transcription, the first lines of Lin Yutang’s article are included as Note [1]. Some of the longer paragraphs are divided into smaller ones. (CCA)
On 14 September 2016, a group of students decided to found the Independent Lodge of Theosophists. Two of the priorities adopted by the ILT are learning from the past and building a better future.