Sorting books strikes all kinds of people as a mindless way to pass time. “How many books are that difficult to sort, really?” they ask. “One in a thousand? And some categories are so obvious. How could anybody get confused about what books go into, say, Music?”
Well, it depends on your definition of “difficult” (I know people who have had their wisdom teeth out and don’t see what all the fuss is about) and your definition of “confused”.
One year, in the heat of a Book Fair, I found a volunteer carrying an armful of sheet music from Room 5 to Room 1. It is explained to me, “All these lyrics are in Italian or German. I’m taking them to Foreign Language.”
I pointed out that the notes on the page are in a universal language, and that singers in the classical idiom normally learn to sing in three or four languages. The sheet music was carried back to the Music section, with a murmur of something that does not sound like “O Sole Mio”.
Later, I was confronted by the same volunteer, holding a thick volume measuring about two inches by four inches. “What about this?” she demanded. “It was in the Music section, but there’s no music in it.”
“Well, see, that’s a hymnal,” I explained. “If everyone in a congregation was to have one, it needed to be inexpensive, so only the lyrics were printed in the book. They were expected to know the basic hymn tunes, or just sing along with the organ or the piano.”
“But it’s just a book of religious poetry, without the music. Shouldn’t it go in Religion? Or Poetry?”
“Well, it is a hymnal, and people collect hymnals, so I like it to sit with the hymnals which do have the music printed in them. And since hymns frequently go on through the generations, the music for those lyrics may well be in a later edition.”
She had stopped listening. A look of triumph on her face, she drew out another thick volume, one which measured about one inch by three inches. “So what’s this?” she demanded. “I found it in Foreign Language.”
It was, of course, another hymnal, in the same music-free format as the other, but entirely in German. I remembered it well: it had come in with a boxful of German religious works: small Bibles, small catechisms, small volumes of homilies. How could I explain that I thought this hymnal would sell better with the other German devotional works than in Music, without encouraging her to shift the sheet music for “Volare” again?
“I wondered where that had gone!” I said, snatching it from her hand. “I need to show this to one of the curators, to see if they want it for the collection. Thank you so much for finding it!”
See, if you’re thanking someone, you can walk away. Some day I’ll tell you about the running battle a volunteer and I had over the Beatles. (“But they’re performers! They belong in Show Biz!”)