There Will Be Order

The surge of the last two weeks has quietened, I think. There is an upside to having people think you’ve stopped accepting books. (We shut down at the Fourth of July, NOT Memorial Day, and this is the last time I’m going to tell you that…for at least another sixteen minutes.)

Still, donations arrive. I had over a hundred Dr. Who novels come in. I had three boxes of World War II movies come in. I had visitors come in.

“Huh!” said a visitor, watching me tape up a box. “Huh!” is a comment I prefer to hear from people glancing into boxes or bags of books. That means the visitor has found something interesting. “Huh!” from somebody watching me work means I am about to hear how THEY would do the same thing I’m doing, only better.

“Huh!” said the visitor. “Hardback Fiction A-L.”I held my breath, hoping I was about the hear another observation about Kindles and modern fiction. No such luck.

“You know, A through L is only twelve letters,” said my unsolicited assistant. “The first half of the alphabet is A through M.”

This reminded me of my intention to explain all the categories at the Book Fair, no matter how much advice this provokes. Once upon a time, we had a category called Fiction. into which all fiction went which was not genre fiction: Mystery, Westerns, Romance, or Science Fiction. (Literature as a separate category came along later, as I have mentioned.) We split Fiction between Hardcover Fiction and Paperback Fiction, for easier shelving. This was before the trade paperback came along to confuse matters; as I have also mentioned hereintofore. If we’d known big paperbacks were going to come along and take over the market, we’d have split it into Big Fiction and Little Fiction.

I don’t recall now whether it was Fiction or Mystery which first got so big as to be daunting, but I am the one who suggested, “Why don’t we split it alphabetically?” We had never alphabetized, particularly, and I thought breaking the category in half would help browsing: if you were looking for Kathleen Norris, you’d go to the second category, and if you wanted Gerald Green you could look in the first.

That plan was trampled by the set-up volunteers, who cried, “Wow! We can alphabetize by author!”

“You CAN, of course,” I said. “But I wouldn’t go further than, say, grouping the As together, and then the Bs, and then….” Before I could talk about the Cs, they were scolding each other for mixing Gerald Green in with Grahame Greene. Some people were born to alphabetize, and there’s no getting around it.

But we were talking about the uneven split: why is the first half of the alphabet deprived of a letter to which it is entitled?

Well, once we did start splitting Fiction, Mystery, and later Literature, we split each of these A-L and M-Z. (It is true we had signs which said Hardback Mystery A-M and N-Z, but that was the result of a typo when we asked for signs.) The fact is that in our culture, surnames in the first half of the alphabet outnumber those in the second half. You can check this in the index to most works of nonfiction, or just by consulting Who’s Who in America (which usually cuts off even more drastically than we do, with A-K in volume 1, and L-Z in volume 2.)

We just wanted to give volunteers in both halves about an equal number of boxes to open. A customer sees only a display of books running from A to Z. Looking for D.E. Stevenson, for example, “Where is S?” is the only thought required. One doesn’t HAVE to think “S is the twentieth letter of a 26-letter alphabet, and so therefore it must be in the second half of the display, always assuming that the volunteers know where to break the alphabet in half.”

Some people DO, of course. But even a Book Fair Manager can’t fix everything that’s wrong with the universe.

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