Sort by Hue

This post first appeared 9 November 2022.

My childhood bookshelf was sorted according to the Dewey Decimal System.

It’s an imperfect system concocted by an imperfect man1 and it showed. Fiction 823, the bulk of my teenage library, sat awkwardly in the middle between general maths 511 and world history 909. Algorithm design 005.1 sat uncomfortably close to unexplained mysteries 001.94.

As a result, my collection didn’t stay that way for long. I kept the good bits of the system (fiction at eye level and sorted by author surname) and discarded the less sensible — putting maths and computer science together.

But now I’ve moved to a different country, leaving most of my books behind. My partner and I are on the long journey to build our own collection (hopefully not limited by our reading speed) and have recently reached the milestone of having to purchase some additional bookshelves from Ikea.

We were experimenting with different layouts: I favoured putting our ridiculous Brandon Sanderson collection2 in the top shelf where they fit with barely a centimetre to spare. She insisted on hiding the D&D tomes at the bottom. The display shelves, we agreed, would house our collection of terrariums and random trinkets.

One day however, I discovered to my horror that my partner had arranged the books on one of the shelves by colour. By colour.

It’s very Pintrest and may have been inspired by a recent stay in an AirBnB with a similarly arrayed bookshelf.

Nonetheless I was outraged. Its a completely non-semantic way to arrange books.

But here’s the thing. When I needed to find a book this weekend (Terry Pratchett quotations - small and green) I could find it immediately. Is this because we just don’t have that many books yet? Possibly. But I also knew what I was looking for and where to look for it.

Thinking back to one of my favourite childhood books, Operation Typhoon Shore I knew it had a black cover with a red band and it’s sequel had a silver jacket though I couldn’t remember its name immediately3. The textbook I used to study for maths olympiads? Olive green with white diagrams and gold writing on the cover. No idea of the name or author.

I’m reminded of a story my mother told me of when she worked in a public library. It was a repository library so had a copy of every book published in the country (plus plenty others). One day a patron arrived asking to borrow a book they dimly remembered having read one time. It was red, they said, but couldn’t recall the title or author. On further (and rather gallant) questioning it turns out they didn’t even remember the plot. One wonders what would have happened if the library was arranged by hue…

Our meagre collection of literary works is not yet large enough that a linear search is out of the question, but just in case, I’m off to go put the Lonely Planet’s guide to Scotland appropriate navy blue next to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat slightly lighter blue.

  1. In other news, the sky is big and the Riemann Zeta problem a little tricky. ↩︎

  2. Headlined by the excellent Stormlight Archives, or as a friend put it, Brandy Sandy’s Crustaceanal Escapades. ↩︎

  3. Operation Storm City, if you were wondering. Joshua Mowll’s Guild of Specialists trilogy which begins with Operation Red Jericho is an excellent read, and the supplementary material included in the books kept me amazed for hours (audiobooks and e-readers will never match being able to unfold a schematic of the machine being described). ↩︎