Creating order out of chaos is hardly unusual. We have street signs, calendars, phone books, and maps; we even have plastic bins from Target perfectly shaped for silverware, or file folders, or rolls of holiday wrapping paper, designed to make our lives neat and color-coded and infinitely easier.
Yet calendars and file folders only work if we use them, and once anything goes into a plastic bin and up into the attic, we immediately forget what it holds. As for street signs? Ha! In Boston signs are nonexistent, face the wrong way, or the street name changes three times in the course of a quarter-mile while the sign never does. Good luck with that one, Google maps.
But getting lost has its benefits, in life and in literature. A satisfying narrative—a good, juicy story—almost always depends on a character taking a detour that’s not on the map.
This less-traveled path inevitably leads to romance or danger or the adventure of a lifetime. The same can happen while wandering through your humble local library; you go in looking for a specific book in a specific section and you end up going home with a book beside it that’s completely unrelated.
I love finding unlikely bedfellows in the stacks, and fiction is the best place to begin. While you’re looking for Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! why not grab the novel next door—Love Finds You in Romeo, Colorado by Gwen Ford Faulkenberry? Still haven’t read Zadie Smith’s NW? Try reading it along with its shelf-buddy: Agent 6, a whodunit set in Stalinist Russia by Tom Rob Smith.
But we expect fiction to be all over the map if only because we know arranging stories by an author’s last name, while necessary for organizational purposes, is completely arbitrary when it comes to the books themselves. In nonfiction, however—where books are supposed to be classified by how they are similar—the discoveries get far more interesting.
Dewey admits his system is imperfect when it comes to putting categories together. “Theoretical harmony and exactness has been repeatedly sacrificed to the practical requirements of the library,” Dewey writes in the preface to A Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library. He’s not kidding—the 600s include Woodworking, Automotive Repair, but also Pets (while Zoology is in the 500s). The 300s cover, among other topics, Etiquette, True Crime, and Folklore, even though you’d think Folklore would live more happily alongside Literature and Rhetoric in the 800s. But for readers and writers inclined to get lost in the stacks, ending up far away from where we intended is often so much better.
For example, last week I trudged off to the library looking for Dinty Moore’s new book The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, a tiny tome of delightful and inspiring writing advice mixed with Buddhist wisdom, and I discovered it comfortably nestled beside Fishing for Dummies, one of those big, floppy, black-and-yellow paperbacks whose goal is Making Everything Easier™. If only because I needed to dwell at length on the wide variety of meanings behind the phrase “Fishing for dummies,” I had to check out both.
I was surprised at how much the two books had in common, how much they truly belonged side-by-side. The call number for Moore’s book may be 808.02 (rhetoric and collections of literature) while Fishing for Dummies is 799.1 (fishing, hunting, and shooting), but clearly there’s a cosmic connection. Dewey intuited the link between rhetoric and writing with fishing, hunting, and shooting well before Norman Maclean did in A River Runs Through It. (Though truthfully Maclean connects fishing with religion, claiming in his book there’s “no clear line” between the two, and while there might not be a line between fishing and religion there sure are a whole lot of books, because religion is found in the 200s.) And in The Mindful Writer, Dinty Moore connects writing with religion—so now I have writing and fishing and religion all swimming around in my head.
But I digress (which was exactly my goal). And what I discovered while digressing is that writing and fishing absolutely belong together, because they operate on similar (and somewhat religious) principals. See below:
The Mindful Writer: “Writing fails most often when the writer fights against the flow of the writing, when the writer refuses to set himself ‘afloat on the language,’ when the writer grasps too firmly or aims too hard.”
Fishing for Dummies: “With any snag, don’t panic. Responding with rage will only drive the hook deeper into the snag, making freeing it impossible . . . . Most casting mistakes can be overcome as long as you stay calm and reason your way out of it.”
The Mindful Writer: “A writer finds the best ideas in trial and error, in sentences that start out one way and surprisingly, uncontrollably, end up pulling in another direction . . . . Listen to where the writing wants to take you.”
Fishing for Dummies: “Fish don’t always behave the way I think they should, or follow my plans for them. . . . I like that unpredictability because it forces me to react, to strategize, to ponder.”
And I’m not even including quotes where Moore actually writes about fishing, or where the authors of Fishing for Dummies apologize for getting “all Zen” on their readers. That would be too easy.
I would love to hear your own stories of bookshelf bedfellows—surprises you’ve found in the stacks. Feel free to share titles in the comments below—until then, here’s another possible spin for my new favorite phrase, Fishing for Dummies. . .