Shelves hold things …
Ursula K. Le Guin maintained that words and books “hold things” and bear meaning – just like a medicine bundle, together “holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.” Wandering through the lowly lit stacks of secondhand books in Archives Fine Books in Charlotte Street on a rainy Saturday recently, enchanted by the sweet musky smell of old books, my eyes drifted this way and that, searching for hidden treasures of writers I love. The first task in any browsing adventure is to ascertain the layout – the ways in each store catalogues and categorises their stock, and thereby configures the physical space. Alphabetical order is consistently applied and genre then takes on a particular order of significance. Fiction A-Z, Literature, Classics, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Horror and Crime Novels, True Crime, Biography, Self-help and Motivation and then all manner of subject matter appears to mark the content on the shelves. Although I did not find any of her work on the shelves that day, Le Guin’s writing about words and books holding things settled like fine dust into my quiet musing about shelves amongst them. Like the objects they contain, I thought and wondered, shelves too similarly bear meaning, hold things and relationships of power – the shelves, the shelving and that which is shelved tell a unique story.
Shelving the works of women
“All I could do was to offer you an opinion on one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of women and the true nature of fiction unsolved” (p. 6).
In A room of one’s own, Virginia Woolf turns to the shelves of the British Museum to find “truth”, and more specifically, the true story about “Women and Fiction”. Virginia looks specifically for writing by women and writing about women by women and finds the shelves disturbingly empty and bare. She is dismayed to find, however, that a disproportionate amount of space on the shelves is taken up by writing about women by men:
Are you aware that you are [as women] the most discussed animal in the universe? … Why are women, judging from this catalogue, so much more interesting to men than men are to women? (pp. 41-42)
Determined to find an explanation to this very curious fact and an answer to the “perennial puzzle [of] why no woman wrote a word of extraordinary literature” (p. 62), Virginia turns her attention to the past and present conditions in which women live that may or may not have afforded them the freedom to write. She concludes that such freedom depends upon material things – like rooms and money – and women have had less of both than “Athenian slaves” (p. 162). Trying not to despair as she passes row upon row of blank spaces on the shelves, that in the past, “a woman was not encouraged to be an artist. On the contrary, she was snubbed, slapped, lectured and exhorted” (p. 85), Virginia retreats deeper and deeper into the stacks of the Museum to continue her search. She arrives in the nineteenth century and discovers that all of the books by women are novels and pauses for a moment to consider why. “What did George Eliot have in common with Emily Bronte?” she wonders. “Did not Charlotte Bronte completely fail to understand Jane Austen?” (p. 99) Was the connection between women and novel writing no more or less than all four were born of the middle-class and shared but a “single-sitting room between them” (p. 99)?
These are matters for musing in another post for at long last, Virginia arrives at the shelves which contain writing by the living and it is here where she finds nearly as many books written by women as by men. There are books by women on Greek archaeology, collections of poetry, plays and travel writing, histories and biographies and Virginia concludes that it would seem that the woman writer is beginning to use writing not only as a method self-expression, but as an art (p. 120). Whether she holds a “pen or a pickaxe” in her hand (p. 121) as a writer is a question that remains to be resolved in Virginia’s mind, but the presence of so many books on so many different subjects by so many women is cause for celebration. The shelves in Archives Fine Books are similarly overflowing with works by women on all manner of topics and I think and wonder how pleased Virginia would be to know that Shakespeare’s sister Judith is alive and well in the body she once laid down (pp. 171-172).
“W” for women
Archives Fine Books is one of those stores where one aisle leads to a set of stairs and turns a corner which opens up to another room replete with rows and rows of shelves. With no rhyme or reason and without concern for the ticking of the clock, I gave myself into the experience of becoming lost amongst the lines and layers of books and stumble across a shelf with the label “Women” . I turn and randomly take in the titles, some familiar – Backlash and Stiffed by Susan Faludi, Mother guilt by Ita Buttrose, The end of equality by Anne Summers, The change by Germaine Greer; and some not so familiar – Icons, saints and divas by Susan Mitchell, Why men don’t iron by Anne and Bill Moir, Celibate wives by Joan Avna and Diana Waltz. The books catalogued under “W” for women are written by women, some are written by men and women, some are written by men and the books shelved together tell a story about women’s lives and experiences then and now. Not for the first time I think and wonder why do we need a “W for women” label on a bookshelf? Why is there no “M for men” label on all of the other shelves, if only one shelf keeps space for writing by and about women? Why do we persist in gendering the ways in which books make their appearances on shelves?
I am not the first – but it would nice to think I might be the last – to ask these questions. In her 1979 collection of essays on science fiction and fantasy The language of the night, Le Guin insister-ed, “No art is ladylike. No art is gentlemanly. Nor is it masculine or feminine. The reading of a book and the writing of a book [and I would add, the shelving of a book] is not an act that’s dependent upon one’s gender”. Her words speak directly to her experiences with publishers, other published authors, and the public as a dissenting female writer in a male-dominated genre. Le Guin’s statement echoes sentiments expressed by Virginia 50 years earlier, “It is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple; one must be womanly-manly or man-womanly” (A room of one’s own, 1929, p. 157). Here Virginia airs her frustration in regards to society’s seeming incapacity to accept that “the normal and comfortable estate of being is that when the two [woman and man] live in harmony together” and goes as far to suggest that perhaps an androgynous mind is the most porous, resonant and creative. Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, lamented in her 2014 blog post, “Capitalize This” on the “great big iceberg of sexism within the whole book industry, which stealthily perpetuates” all manner of assumptions and beliefs about women and writing, including where works by and about women should be shelved.
Standing in front of the shelf labelled “W for women”, the cons associated with writing by women and being labelled as such are quickly followed by a list pros and before long my initial set of three questions braid themselves into a rope which tries to tug my thoughts away in pursuit of answers to more. The sigh which escapes my mouth is heavy with the knowledge that no rhyme to these reasons will be found today and I resolve to do one final sweep of the shelves – I find multiple copies of Chocolat but the shelves are bereft by the absence of words by Virginia Woolf or Ursula K. Le Guin.
The shelves are shiny somehow the same
With festive season vouchers in hand, my partner Darren and I leave Archive Fine Books with two Peter Goldsworthy’s (Wish and Honk if you are Jesus), one Alice Hoffman (Blue diary) and a book by etymologist Mark Forsyth (The etymologicon – because you can never have enough books about words and their roots) in hand and make our way to Dymocks in Queen Street Mall. Upon entering we go our separate ways – Darren is not quite as familiar with the city store and heads towards the section labelled “Literature”. I weave my way to the “Philosophy” and “Reference” shelves which keep each other company side by side. I know from experience that quite unexpected treasures can be found here and I am not disappointed. Today there are two non-fiction gems by Margaret Atwood books wedged together on the edge of the top shelf of “Philosophy” – In other worlds: SF and the human imagination and On writers and writing (an earlier edition published under the title Negotiating with the dead: A writers on writing). On writers and writing catches my attention and I flip through to the “Preface”. Atwood asks herself of herself, “What has she been up to, and why, and for whom? And what is this writing, anyway?” (p. xvii) and I immediately clutch the book to my chest. Writers writing about their writing and writing itself is at once a gem and a gift; this present from a writer I adore is one I shall gladly accept.
I turn around to face the shelf opposite – it bears the label “Gender” and I smile, oh the irony of gender staring directly into the face of philosophy! Here, there are many and varied recent titles by women and about women, and the experiences of being women today which matter, but there are others too – intersectional books with titles which include words like queer, they/their/them, and authored by non-White, non-Western writers. “The times they are a-changing”; the musac in Dymocks echoes in reply to my thinking and wondering, and my eyes wander further down to the third shelf – and there it is, a copy of Virginia’s A room of one’s own. She and her words are suspended there, I think and wonder, quite rightly, in between Mary Wollstonecraft’s A vindication on the rights of women on one side and They their them by Eris Young on the other.
I am not sure whether Virginia would approve of this gender categorisation – but at least the significance of A room of one’s own as prominent and powerful feminist work is acknowledged. Usually A room of one’s own is on the bottom shelf labelled “Classics” on account of her surname, “W for Woolf” and the only other work of hers I find in the store is a gorgeously illustrated edition by Merve Emreof arguably her most famous novel, The annotated Mrs Dalloway.
S for shelving the shelf markers?
I tuck my copy of Margaret Atwood’s On writing and The annotated Mrs Dalloway under my arm and walk out of Dymocks, my mind spinning with the gendered story held, marked and told by the bookshelves I browsed today. The story is one of labels and categories, of what is real and what is not, of meaning making and meaning mattering, of necessity and desire, of ease and comfort, of supply and demand, of consumerism and commercialism – all of them wording and worlding in and around the marking of gender as one or the other, and still very much part of the way we mark ourselves in stories on shelves. I think and wonder, will there come a time where the shelf markers on shelves are no longer needed? I hope the answer to this question is yes – sometime soon, there will be bookshelves where books are freely shelved, a shelf shelved free from any other condition aside from that their occupants are books.
“Here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets.”
― Virginia Woolf, “Street haunting”, in Death of the moth and other essays (1942, p. 30).
“My bookshelf needs books on its shelves so that it can find, know and become itself – in and of itself. And not just any books. The bookshelf and I need books we call friends, close up friends”
― Critical writing for embodied approaches (Mackinlay, 2019, p. 30).