Nina Katchadourian—an artist you may have previously seen in a Flemish airline toilet portrait—started arranging book spines as a graduate student in 1990. Not her own, or those in a public library, but the collection of her classmate’s parents. They lived in a foggy California beach town called Half Moon Bay and were both real estate agents who were on their second marriage. When they moved in together, they’d merged their two book collections, composed of many a self-help guide. Katchadourian was immediately drawn to the way each book’s spine communicated with another. Not only the way the titles of books could form poetic phrases, but also their physical appearances: Were they decrepit? Never read? Thumbed and held tight like an old teddy bear? For the next 20 years, Katchadourian asked herself these questions in many different private libraries, and the product is Sorted Books, a collection of delicious photographs that offer a light into the intellectual minds of others. Highlights from my chat with the author below:
As someone who has visited many libraries, how can you sense you’re in a good one?
“Good one” is an interesting term applied to this project. One person once said to me, “Wouldn’t it be a dream project to be able to do something with the Library of Congress?” I thought, you know, at a certain point the collections of books that try to cover everything are not ideal for this project. I’m more interested in collections where there’s focus, where the interests of private individuals pool up around certain kinds of things. That’s why I’ve been fond of working in specialized book collections, like the project I did in Delaware last year, where the books were collected on the basis of their covers and they were from a very particular time period. What makes a good collection is one where you can really sense a person’s particular concentrated areas and interests, and what those things are and how they collide with and even contradict each other.
I was struck when I saw your sorting from the Athenaeum Arts and Music Library in La Jolla. To me, the fonts, colors, and titles of the books embody the gauze-clad beachgoer who displays decorative seashells in her bathroom. Demographically, what differences have you noticed in collections?
The Athenaeum in San Diego is a funny kind of library because it’s private, which means that you have to be a member to use it. I don’t know that I could say it represents San Diegans. But it was a particular slice of La Jolla. There was a kind of a loveliness to the feeling of that building and the feeling of the books in that library. I think I’d need to do many many more to make demographic claims. But when I’ve sorted an individual’s library, it shows up in their books in ways that are pretty consistently quite different and interesting for me to work with.
Can you peg a person’s personality by what’s on their shelf?
To some degree, the same way all of us have probably been the nosey party guest and looked over someone’s CD collection or someone’s book collection, tried to figure out what that person’s like based on what that person’s reading. When I am in someone’s home, the first pass through their books might give me a pretty good sense of what they’re consistently interested in. What I really like is finding these books where I think How odd that they would also be reading about this thing.
It’s very personal, looking at people’s books. There have certainly been people who are less comfortable with it. When I was in residency in Sweden in 2004, I approached a number of different contemporary writers with the help of the institution that was sponsoring me. I wasn’t even a rogue artist writing to them, but consistently, people came back with the reply that “My books are very personal and I’m not comfortable with having someone work with them.” Ironically, where that all went in the end is me getting permission to work with one of Sweden’s most absolute famous writers of all time, August Strindberg, who is long deceased. So I got to work with not a famous contemporary Swedish writer, but a very very famous dead Swedish writer. He turned out to be a very complicated, interesting man, curious about so many things. His books were a fantastic range of wildly different topics, from literature to the occult to travel to alchemy.
Do you write non-book spine poetry?
This is kind of my writing project. It’s sort of like a strange puzzle you’re trying to solve again and again. This sounds new age-y and mystical but there’s an eerie feeling you have when a cluster almost writes itself. I’ve really never written poetry. Sorting is like writing lyrics or writing a poem, but having props to do it with, and having the very useful constraints of language that are already out there to work from. Within those constraints I have to find a freedom to find something else. I’m ultimately limited by the size of the library, and the books that are there, and the language that’s already on the spine. Then the question is like, OK, what can be done with this stuff? I will have two amazing tiles lined up and all I need is to find that third fantastic one that will complete it. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I’m tempted to go and order a bunch of books online to finish the sentence but I’ve never cheated. It would be terribly against my own rules to do so.
An artist named Meriç Algün Ringborg recently held an exhibition called “The Library of Unborrowed Books,” in which she displays books that have never been checked out of libraries. Some of the titles were surprising to me—Don DeLillo’s Running Dog, for instance. Are you ever surprised by which books seem worn and which books seem untouched in a library?
I’m often trying to think about the physical properties of the books, titles aside. Their physicality carries a kind of information too. In the Strindberg library, he treated his books very very roughly. During a famous exchange he had with his brother when he was arranging to have the books shipped he said, “Just tear the covers off if they’re too heavy.” The way that people handle their books sometimes mirrors the way a kid handles a stuffed animal. It’s kind of been loved into a state of disintegration. Then there’s sometimes books where you’re like, Wow, it’s pristine, and the person has probably bought this, perhaps with the intention of reading it, or they just want to have it in case. I certainly own some books in that category.
My mom once gave me a copy of the Joy of Cooking, and she was like, “Just leave it out when you have a date over.”
[Laughs] I was going to bring up cookbooks. There was a book collection I was working in that lead to the book sorting called Sorting Shark. The husband and wife, editors of this journal called Shark, were very avid readers. She’s an artist. He’s an English professor and a poet. She’s also a really incredible cook. There were a lot of cookbooks in their library, and I loved how the cookbooks would sometimes be splattered on, and you could really kind of see a certain use there.
As opposed to say the diet books, which are probably completely untouched.
The very first sorting ever there was a lot of self-help in that collection and that can sometimes be kind of pointed too—a book that has clearly been about a difficult subject for somebody. You get the sense that that book has been read, or there are notes in the margins. Things you don’t see in my photographs. It’s a tough project to do without getting sucked into reading. Many many times I’ve been working on this and I’ll suddenly be like, Oh sh*t, I just stood there reading for 20 minutes, I can’t read everything I pick up or I’ll never get out of here.
Now that you have your own book, have you imaged how you might sort it if you found it in someone’s library?
I will one day have to use my book in a book cluster. I’m sure this will happen. But I don’t know how yet. I’ve never worked with any book collections truly close to home. I guess I’ve been interested in using it as a vehicle to come to know a stranger, or come to know a collection that’s foreign to me.
That said, sometimes I’ve stayed over at people’s houses, and as a little sort of funny thing for them to find, I’ve taken a few of their books and written a little sentence and left it behind. They are usually inside jokes. It’s fun to leave these little signatures behind.