Geek Duende, Blithe Dread: How to Organize Books by Sector

Gregg Williard
chaotic assortment of books
Photo by Matthew Dagelet on Unsplash

The minimalist approach to book ownership (or disposal) by tidying expert Marie Kondo has its many supporters and detractors. It is not within the purview of this account to fully assess her ideas, but rather to propose another scheme for home library organization, the Sector Approach, which could be regarded as a kind of “maximalist” alternative to the Marie Kondo philosophy. 

While her method interrogates (and expels) books for their capacity or incapacity to induce joy, the Sector Approach presumes a debilitating ambivalence about most books, the reading experience, and the nature of joy itself. Book acquisition and reading for the caretaker of a Sector Library is a sometimes-indiscriminate passion and compulsion all too indistinguishable from simple “hoarding.” Questions of choice, acquisition, and quality (even “joyfulness”) often appear irrelevant, or impossible to determine. If anything, book choices and reading seem faithful to an aesthetic of contingency, caprice, or mental illness, with the borders separating each taking up new forms in the physical deployment of the books themselves, i.e., The Sector Approach. The Approach can confer an air of order and progress to a daunting dilemma: too many books to read, too little space to rationally organize them, and too ambiguous or ambivalent any criteria for deciding what books should be read, and in what order. It is a guarded balm, the unleavened bread of a stoic, the hard-tack rusk munched on the run through rubble, and route.

The term “Sector” itself is not idly chosen, drawing on its geopolitical and tactical use to evoke a realm of military or bureaucratic planning, power, borders, and domains. Moving through a home of “Sectors” can have the dark romance of traversing the contested Russian, American, and British zones of post-war Vienna in The Third Man. Or the filthy panic of rubble that runs through wartime Warsaw or Stalingrad. Admittedly, the term, when applied to national borders, security zones, military occupation, legal residency, work permits, and citizenship, is ultimately arbitrary and spurious. This is equally true when applied to a home library. Yet even a fantasy can be a robust bulwark against inner and outer chaos and anxiety. The following describes the particulars of one such space, the movement of book and reader from one Sector to the next, and some of the inexplicable complications and dangers such a system may invite if not practiced with the proper balance of geek duende, and blithe dread.

Sector A: the small stack of four to ten books on a round glass table in the living room. This is both terminus, and transfer. The place of opening, and closing. Reading, and passing on. Beside this table and books is a soft rocking chair where the books are read, facing a picture-window view to the west of pine, elm, poplar, and willow trees, and a gurgling twenty-nine-gallon fish tank with a plastic pirate-skeleton at the wheel of a sunken galleon, its eye-patched skull kept gleaming white by algae-sucking snails. As each Sector A book is read, it is replaced by another from Sector B. (All books that have been read from Sector A are urged into any available space in the large bookshelves throughout the house). 

Sector B: the right end of a wall shelf behind the couch to the right of the Sector A table, under a window filled in with glass bricks. When this sector is empty, it will be used for books that have been read from all other sectors. 

Sector C: the shelf space in the dining room behind the Bose radio. As this space is emptied, it will be filled with finished books from all other sectors. 

Sector D: the row of books on the floor to the left of the desk in the front room (known as “the TV room”), on the other side of the glass brick window. Sector D books partly block the back door, beside the window facing the neighbor who sometimes screams at night, across the street from woods where coyotes cry like humans to the wail of beltline sirens. When this space is emptied, it will be left empty, so the back door can be opened fully to admit the sounds of the night—animal, machine, and human.

Sector E is really multiple locations: randomly shelved books throughout the basement, first floor, stairwell shelves and bedroom shelves, some of which have not been read, or finished, or need to be reread. These books are selected and pulled at random for election to Sector A, either because they are newly remembered, or mentioned in something read, and seem important to read or reread, or are simply noticed on the shelves in the process of walking through rooms and seem unfamiliar, newly relevant, or just catch the eye. 

Sector E is also a receiving area for “orphans,” “refugees,” the lost, the vagrant amnesiacs with torn-off covers and missing pages, the homeless and wastrel, the fugue-state wanderer-books that come from random encounters and selections over a wider range, the entire world, the taken-in books found accidentally in street garbage, Little Libraries, or public-library book-sale shelves, or used and new bookstores, or titles reviewed or referenced in book reviews, or online sites, or through personal recommendations. Serendipity, or the unhappiest of accidents, or a simple failure of will to say no more, occasion these entries into Sector E, and sometimes, straight onto the elect stack of Sector A. 

The general passage of books, therefore, flows consecutively from Sectors B, C, D, and then E, to finally replenish the cairn bottleneck of Sector A. This stack is limited to four to ten books so as not to present an ungainly, tottering, and overwhelming tower. The order of movement from one Sector to another, as mentioned before, can occasionally be overruled on a case-by-case basis, but some effort is made to maintain proper order and finish whatever comes up in the queue next. This is true even if the next book appears or proves to be of little or no interest, or value. 

For example, presently on the top of the Sector A stack is a yellowed and crumbling Scholastic Books paperback juvenile from 1962, Bruce Larkin, Air Force Cadet by Jack Pearl. This book is a boilerplate boys adventure novel that is mostly an Air Force Academy recruitment promotional, found in a neighborhood little library and taken because it fit nicely in a back pocket. After the first page, the prose was clearly flat and stereotyped, while presenting a fascinatingly bald picture of a 1950s to 1960s idealized boyhood that caused such misery growing up. Thus, it offers its own seductive, instructive vortex. This is joined by an entirely different “boys story,” Miron Bialoszewski’s A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, then Natasza Goerke’s short story collection Farewells to Plasma; Neruda and Vallejo Selected Poems; The Answers by Catherine Lacey; Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac; Coraline (graphic novel) by Neil Gaiman and Craig Russell; The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff; Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow; and How to Read Heidegger by Mark Wrathman. 

Transfers to Sector A, then, usually represent a variety of quality, genre, nationality, era, and gender. These are to be read at every sitting in the soft rocking chair that faces the picture window looking out on pine, elm, poplar, and willow trees, and the gurgling fish tank, though the order of reading from the Sector A stack can be varied, i.e., from the top, from the bottom, from the middle. Even reading a tiny portion of each in one sitting is common.

A special exemption comes from random, timed readings of books pulled from one section of Sector E, the shelves under the gurgling twenty-nine-gallon fish tank. These readings occur whenever the tank water is being changed and siphoned out into buckets on the floor in front of the shelves. During this process, random titles of little-read, unfinished, or forgotten books are read in the period of time it takes to fill each bucket, transfer the siphoning tube into a second bucket, empty the first bucket in the kitchen sink, and return to read until the next bucket is filled and the process is repeated through twelve buckets of dirty-to-clean fish water. Most recently in this manner, the first book of The Oresteia by Aeschylus was read. 

During this reading, fishy water smells cling to Agamemnon and his stolen war prize Cassandra after dragging her off the boat from the plundered Troy. They are met at the palace door by his wife Clytemnestra. The tube was switched to the other bucket, the first to the sink, dumped, brought back to wait for the second bucket to fill. Cassandra has the gift of prophecy, but since she refused to have sex with him, he gave her the curse that no one would ever believe her prophecies. She tells him that Clytemnestra is going to kill them both, but of course he doesn’t believe her, and that night Clytemnestra kills them both. The bucket was full and the tube was switched to the other one. The full one was taken to the sink and dumped. The empty one was returned and while the other filled, Clytemnestra chortles over the bodies,

Here he lies.
He brutalized me. The darling of all
the golden girls who spread the gates of Troy.
his lover lies beside him.
She brings a fresh, voluptuous relish to my bed!

The bucket was full and the tube was switched, and the full bucket was taken to the sink and dumped. The empty one was brought back, and while the water in the filling one neared the top, 

Seven years after his Father’s murder, Orestes (grown to young manhood in exile) returns, in disguise, to Argos with his sister Electra to make their prayer to the dead king and make a plea for help in their plan to avenge the dead king . . . The second play of the trilogy is named The Libation Bearers after the chorus of women who come on stage in the opening scene to pour

The filling bucket overflowed and stained the carpet. A third bucket was grabbed. The tube was switched and the full bucket was taken to the sink and dumped. It was returned and set beside the new bucket with the tube, now one-third full,

liquid offerings on the grave of Agamemnon...the queen has been terrified by a dream in which she gave birth to a serpent, but when she gave suck, it drew blood. She fears it is a sign of Agamemnon’s wrath. Orestes will gain entrance to the palace by bringing a false report of his own death in exile...

Not to be overlooked is a “wild card” sector, Sector F, occupied by binge check-outs of library books, sometimes twenty or more at a time, that would quickly overwhelm the system, and, if shelved throughout the general titles of Sector E, quickly lost and forgotten to accrue sometimes massive late fees. Sector F, therefore, is the unruliest “pile,” though discreetly located on dining room chairs pushed under the table, and out of sight. These library books are read on the side, sometimes fast-tracked over standard processing order because of limited borrowing times, in a sometimes uneasy “side hustle” to the more regulated obligations of life within the borders of a Sectored Home.

Other, non-sector designated “side hustles” occupy transient, “Pop-Up Sectors” throughout the house (including the Sunday New York Times on the front porch table or back deck table; The New York Review of Books, also on porches or decks; The New Yorker, and miscellaneous literary journals and magazines also on porches, decks, in bags, by chairs in front of the TV, and on a nightstand by the bed). Reading of essays, stories, news articles, and emails from phones and laptops occurs with a similar, furtive violation of Sector protocol.

Of note is a special ancillary to the Home Book Sectors A to F, which is Sector X, located at a local radio station at night. Sector X is made of nineteenth-century Russian or French novels, read aloud on the air at midnight for one hour, three nights a month in an empty dark studio to an unknown, possibly nonexistent audience. With that schedule, a single book can take months, even years to finish. This “Shadow Sector” can enter dreams where new rooms and new Sectors multiply, where a single book alone on one shelf is vast, unknown, and expanding.

Influenced by the “Slow Book Effect” of Sector X, a trend in the system has recently been noted. A kink in the garden hose of words. A traffic cul-de-sac. Or perhaps a diversion into alternate, unseen routes of book conveyance, or non-conveyance, through newly permeable borders into Sectors unknown. This is a trend to reduce the four to ten books of Sector A down to a single book, not merely reading one at a time, but actually alone on the table and not part of a stack. (Finding a space for the other, temporarily deferred books of Sector A is sometimes a daunting challenge, and resorting to an ad hoc cubby or corner behind a chair or potted plant is sometimes the only available choice). The single book, chosen largely at random, is read from start to finish with no other concurrent books or readings, and then, irrespective of interest or desire, read again for an indefinite time, and purpose. The outcome of this “Static Sector” strategy has yet to be assessed while new books continue to enter the system and are still waiting for attention, though for how long is also unknown. Their patience tested by these Sectors is a rapidly filling bucket, ever nearing the moment of dumping, only to pass the siphon tube to another bucket, and another, filled with something fishy, that some call joy.

Gregg Williard is a writer, visual artist, and teacher. He teaches ESL to refugees in Madison, Wisconsin.