Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books by Georges Perec 2020
I’ve read another work by Perec who in addition to writing with constraint, also wrote in what I would term a ‘conceptual’ framework. His 1975 book ‘An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris’ is the record of his detailed observations about he saw during a weekend sitting in various cafes in St. Sulpice square. His descriptions of buses, pedestrians, pigeons, and others passing through the square are of the ‘infraordinary’, i.e. nothing special happened.
This book is part of the Penguin series of Great Ideas in which the publisher provides books that “have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves – and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives–and upended them…. the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are”.
The book did not disappoint. Rather, it provided fascinating insights as Perec explored his mind, his world, and their intersection. In nine brief essays, his wit and erudition shine forth as he delves into topics as varied as the post-Holocaust writings of Robert Antelme (Perec’s mother was murdered at Auschwitz) and the purpose of his own writing (“What is the right question, the one that will enable truly to answer, truly to answer myself? Who am I? What am I? Where am I at?”). Entertaining essays about the objects on his worktable, a psycho-physiological inquiry into reading, and in the eponymous essay, his brief notes on the art and manner of arranging his library made for fun reading. The final two essays were my favorites, one on ‘Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die’ (the final item on this list was one that would have appeared on my list, “Make the acquaintance of Vladimir Nabokov”) and ‘Think/Classify” in which he refers to the ‘ineffable joy of enumeration.’ For this major league list maker, that’s music to my ears.
Perec is a wonder. Dead in 1982 at the age of 45 from lung cancer due to his continuous smoking, he is not widely known and may not even have had a major impact on 20th C literature. But his inclusion in this Penguin series of Great Ideas confirms my opinion that he was an important and creative writer. Oulipo continues to function today, though its original founders are long gone. Perec’s great work, “Life: A User’s Manual” sits on my bookshelf flaunting its 647 densely worded pages and is now on my list of Things I Really Must Do Before I Die.’