Mark’s Bookshelf

12 Minute Read

(For Mark Magleby)

I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

This post owes its title to a short story in Adventures in Contentment in which David Grayson, the pseudonymous author and principal hero of Ray Stannard Baker’s early 20th-century tales about pastoral life in western Massachusetts, meets and flips the fortunes of a door-to-door book ageng. The agent, after his meek attempt to answer a few leading questions Grayson deftly puts to him, reveals himself to know less about the contents of the books he is hawking than does their prospective buyer. Having exposed the young man’s ignorance of the content and value of the books compared to his own, Grayson dismisses the poor man with something like, “You’re on shaky ground when you attempt to sell your customer a thing he already possesses. Perhaps it is I who should be seeing these books to you.”

In similar style did it transpire that the encyclopedic library of books in my study, with its changeful knack for reminding me of who I thought I was before it happened, slipped effortlessly from my grasp to become the virtual property of my brilliant but devious brother-in-law. By the time he made his getaway unseen in the morning hours following his overnight heist, he had come to know my books—Grayson-like—in ways I would not have dared to picture prior to his clever if in some ways painful, intervention. In fact, those same books that I once imagined capable of revealing to me my inner self overnight, and without his reading so much as a word from any of them, now spoke only of his identity. But before I recount how he liberated me of my 300-book collection without removing from it a single volume, let me first explain how he disabused me of the lens through which I viewed the world.

In their salad days, Mark and Julie (my younger sister) Magleby lived in Columbus, Ohio, where Mark was taking a Ph.D. in art history at The Ohio State University. So near was their home to ours in Maryland that Kari and I regularly delighted in spending holidays and special occasions with Julie and Mark and our combined passel of nine children.

During one Thanksgiving in Columbus, I plucked a book from Mark’s shelf—I can be vulgar when snooping in other people’s libraries—and began reading from The Order of Things by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. In the book’s preface, Foucault cannot stop laughing at Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who is mocking British natural philosopher John Wilkins, who, for his part, is throwing an undisclosed Chinese author under a 17th-century carriage for purportedly creating an encyclopedia of knowledge that included 14 ways to classify the entire panoply of animals. Included in the menagerie—I’m more or less quoting Foucault and not necessarily Borges or Wilkins—are “all animals belonging to the emperor; the dog that just knocked over the pitcher; trained animals; suckling pigs; fabulous (imaginary) animals; embalmed animals, mermaids; stray dogs; animals included in the present classification; animals that tremble as if they were mad; animals too numerous to count; animals drawn with a fine camel hair brush; and animals that, from a distance, look like flies.”

The morning after Mark’s return to Ohio from a research trip to the galleries of Washington, DC, I found myself standing in front of the bookshelf in my basement study, which doubled as Mark’s guest room whenever he was in town. I was searching for a book on the translation project that resulted in the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. Over the years, I had arranged my five-column, floor-to-ceiling library by topic to make it easier to locate books like God’s Secretaries in a section of my shelf that, although unlabeled, was known to me as the only place I kept books on religion. But that morning, not only could I not put my finger on God’s Secretaries, I couldn’t even locate the invisibly designated but reliably grouped Religion section. As my perplexed mind and increasingly erratic eye darted this way and that in search of the book, or at least its proper neighborhood, I ultimately took in the entirety of the bookshelf. As I did so, I sensed the onset of what felt like a deep loss. The fortress of books from which I normally sensed a tower of order and meaning—even identity—seemed to stare coldly back at me as though I had become, since the last time I visited, an unwanted interloper in someone else’s library. After a few fruitless minutes of looking for my book, I felt as though God’s Secretaries, wherever it might be, now belonged to someone else.

Don’t you think it’s more charming with them all arranged by color?

John North, The New Yorker, December 19, 2022

The first clue to the mystery that I later came to think of as Mark’s Great Book Robbery was handwritten on a single, unsigned Post-it note pressed like an afterthought to the middle row of the middle column of what used to be my stage plays. With David Grayson’s encyclopedic knowledge, and reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Apt natural, I have a gub” note to the bank-teller in Take the Money and Run, Mark had hi-jacked my 300-volume library with a four-part quiz.

“Was it:
A. An act of terror?
B. An act of God?
C. A freak of nature?
D. A Chinese encyclopedia?
E. All of the above?”

In the mid-1600s, John Wilkins was one of only a handful of English scholars to chair departments at both Oxford and Cambridge. A polymath who had attempted to create a universal language, Wilson fabricated the fictitious Chinese encyclopedia Borges would scorn three centuries later to legitimize the language project he viewed as nothing more than the grandest negotiation of all signs and symbols mutually adopted during the great human compromise of word building. Unlike Wilkins, Mark sought to co-opt my library without renegotiating the meaning of its books either individually or together.

Or did he?

Like world-building, word-building discards previously fashionable values and customs to supplant them with the latest, traction-gaining vanguard du jour. In the crossfire of crossover, when language morphs, entire identities withdraw their delights. But unlike those I had derived from books devoured and the anticipation of those yet on the menu, in the same way, I felt about my copy of Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences‘ no longer sidling up to Barbara Ann Kipfer’s The Order of Things: How Everything in the World Is Organized into Hierarchies, Structures, and Pecking Orders, the delights of this new new were not to my liking. But there was something else afoot in Mark’s new word world. And as I stepped back from his post-it note confession, wondering what he intended by invoking Wilkins’ Chinese encyclopedia, the penny dropped.

Squinting at the entirety of my bookshelf, its complete disorder suddenly gave way. I could now see clearly that every single book fit neatly in place, exactly where it should be, precisely where my eyes would immediately dart to find it if, like Mark Magleby, I were a postmodern art historian that saw everything in the world as a singular, flowing, panoramic river of negotiated color. Einstein, who predicted the timeless existence of what he called the continual presence of light, might have grinned from his grave. From the upper left corner of the room to the lower right antipodes of what only the day before I regarded as my library, I spied instead of a wholeness carefully fragmented by topic, a new unbroken wave of continually transitioning light. By removing my deliberately created order of things and replacing it with his—a white-to-grey, black-to-navy, royal-to-lavender, purple-to-red, orange-to-yellow, green-to-tan, and brown-to-beige continuum—Mark had obliterated my single-minded, if explicate comfort zone and created instead a strangely implicate mirage. Standing before it, I was in complete awe; and at a total loss.


Mark’s rainbow remained bright for several days as I waited for a weekend when I could tear down his color wheel and reclaim my previously held identity. Beginning that first day, however, to find God’s Secretaries, I might have been the first customer to shop on Amazon, not for a book but for its color. But after one jam-packed weekend led to another, I found that I relied on Amazon less and admired Mark’s encyclopedia more, until I was no longer rejected by the disorienting dilemma he tossed in my direction on his way out my door that morning. I curated Mark’s loaned bookshelf for years.

Last night, someone broke into my apartment and replaced everything I own with exact duplicates. When I pointed it out to my roommate, he said, “Do I know you?”

Steven Wright

In John Wilkins’ attempt to negotiate a universal language, he had supposed—rightly, according to the postmodernists yet to come—that because language was little more than an agreement amongst those requiring a common platform to converse with each other, it was only a matter of time that all of us would come together around the promise of a common language. If that is so, then Foucault was right to keep laughing; Borges was right to mock and scorn; I was right to evolve my bookshelf in parallel with my identity—or the other way round; Mark was justified in stealing it out from under me; and Wilkins, in fabricating his Chinese encyclopedia sans negotiation with a soul in China—had he ever even gone there?—was equally right. At this moment, somewhere in a country where a large share of its more than a billion people counts as their best friend, a mammalian member of the animal kingdom, there is probably a dog currently knocking over a pitcher. And did not all creatures, if they are far enough away from their observers, look like flies?


Mark chuckled when I called to tell him, a decade after he last visited his bookshelf, that his outmaneuvering me that morning had left behind a precious nugget I had just added to my consulting playbook. A class of hotel owners, all customers of a large hotel management company, threatened legal action to peer into what they considered the black box cost model that popped out—randomly, to their way of thinking—their monthly management fee to the company that operated their hotels. In particular, the owners of small hotels wanted reassurances they were not paying above their fair share for certain information systems when compared to owners of larger properties. To clear the air, the hotel owner class wanted to know, for example, the fully laden cost of making a hotel reservation and why that cost had historically been pegged to, say, the revenue derived from the reservation. Why not—more fairly, to their way of thinking—base it simply on the number of rooms in the hotel? For their part, owners of large hotels argued that the cost of providing a reservation should be a flat fee for all parties regardless of the size or number of rooms reserved.

At the time the hotel owners threatened the class action suit, I was doing strategy work for the hotel management company that provided, among other services, the reservation systems used by small and large hotels alike. To help examine whether the models that assigned costs reflected an allocation method all parties deemed fair and equitable, I was asked by my client to design and lead a workshop aimed at loosening up the thinking that had gone into the design of the original system, and to do so the following day. I decided on the spot to focus on what the Greeks called Metanoia—a change of mind.

The next morning I began the workshop by attempting to untether the accountants from their mental models by first disrupting their daily routines. Applying a technique called transformative learning that calls for the critical examination of uncritically assimilated worldviews through disorientation, I challenged them to design not a new accounting system—that could have taken months—but, of all things, an animal encyclopedia. As a warm-up exercise, I led them in a game I had devised after nearly rolling my ankle over a tennis ball on my basement floor the night before. Gathering up an example of every ball rolling around my house that evening, I challenged the team to come up with all the possible games one could play with every ball I brought to the workshop—a football; baseball; basketball; tennis ball; Wiffle ball®; soccer ball; ping-pong ball; marble; shuttle cock; etc.—with added points awarded for originality. When their collective imagination ran dry—tennis balls are used in tennis (1 point), sometimes baseball (2 points), and to hang from a string to alert you when your car bumper is about to hit the rear wall of your garage (5 points)—I pressed them to substitute different balls into different games and imagine what that might look like.

(In a Who-put-their-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment in 1965, a Congressman from the state of Washington wanted to play badminton with his kids one summer but couldn’t find the packed-away or lost racquets or shuttlecocks. So he improvised with ping-pong mallets and a Whiffle ball to invent what is now the fastest-growing sport in America. (50 points.) )

Once we had come up with a couple of dozen new ways to reuse the basket of balls, I had the team throw, kick, or bat each ball against the wall and afterward catalog any meaningful observations. What directions do the balls ricochet in when they hit the wall? Which balls fared better when batted? Which balls bounced back? And which just left dents in the wall? (Minus 20 points.) How easily can one catch a ball on the rebound? What sound did each ball make as it smacked, bonked, brushed against (or stuck to) the wall? If anything, the exercise got the sedentary accountants on their feet and hopefully brought their minds to a place where they were not thinking about past accounting systems. With a bonk here, a thwack there, I needed them prepped to envision future cost models.

The mental ice-breakers behind us, I then challenged each team to come up with as many schemes as they could for cataloging the animal kingdom. To introduce the context, I gave a quick overview of the two books I had brought with me as props for recounting Mark’s cosmic caper. After discussing for a minute whether Foucault or Kipfer, each author of my two couldn’t-be-more-different books entitled The Order of Things, would have sided with Aristotle’s domain-kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species taxonomy we had learned in school, I imposed a 30-point penalty for any team that claimed Aristotle’s ontology as their own. The final push to metanoia came, I had hoped, from the photos I had brought.

To help unfreeze their present ways of thinking about animals, I had taken pictures of each section of the basement bookshelf on loan to me from the new director of the Museum of Art at a major U.S. university. After showing them a panoramic vista of Mark’s rainbow, I passed around the pictures of the separately colored sections of the still-preserved library and asked what they made of the groupings of books beyond the color of their spines. I had not discovered what they would soon deduce until I snapped the photos the night before and couldn’t wait to share with Mark my aha! moment. As they read off the titles in the red section, with maybe a hint and a nudge from the emcee, the teams noticed that each book with a red spine had something to do with power. The blue books seemed to cover, more or less, a variety of the hard sciences. The grey and white books were clearly clustered around the cognitive sciences. The black ones, astronomy, and crossover topics like alchemy and quantum physics. The light green books, poetics. And most obvious, the maroon books were all compendia—dictionaries, thesauri, almanacs, and anthologies—circumscribing either knowledge or knowledge about knowledge.

Apart from the sadist in the group who insisted the animal kingdom could only be viewed from a single seat in his personal theater—”animals I kill with my hands, animals I kill with a rock, animals I kill … “—the exercise was a success if measured by how long the accountants allowed the encyclopedia game to cut into their lunch hour. My only regret was not allowing time to explore the downside of cutting up the animal kingdom, our resident sadist’s view of cutting notwithstanding, into too many bits. And that, for some, two sections was one too many. Something about Mark’s continuous swathe of color—no two red books were the same shade—made the entire library somehow indivisible, impregnable, even unusable on days I took the whole thing in and found only “Monolithic library—nothing to see here.”

When I broke the news to Mark that I had finally understood that what he’d done to those books was the same thing publishers had understood since the days of chromatic psychology, he just laughed. “How about that!” was all he would admit to, his signal that he had either moved on, had long since discarded previously fashionable values and customs to supplant them with the latest, traction-gaining vanguard of the hour, or forgotten the entire incident. Doubtless, he was off attending to some other world he had since built and happy to bequeath his abandoned bookshelf back to me. “If you still need it,” he might have said, but did not and would never. He wasn’t just giving me back my library. He had never taken possession of it. Not really.

If the characters on the planets I’ve invented made up the rules that govern their societies out of thin air, devoid of a single pointer back to the familiarity of life on earth, no one on our planet would take me seriously. As a writer you can’t just make up stuff. It has to be tethered to something readers have a realistic chance of picturing.

Orson Scott Card

When Aristotle, in all his classification of the natural world, put his finger on the various ways of seeing a thing, he was careful never to over-entangle his arbitrary representation with the thing itself. When the epistemologist of the Western world spoke of books (his word would have been scrolls), he alternatively referred to the information they circumscribed, how they felt in his hand, the space they displaced on his shelf, the color of their “dust jackets.” But in all his abstracting, he never mistook representation for reality. Just as truth is only the knowledge of things as they are and never the things themselves (See Schrödinger’s Cat Burglar for my conversation with Dr. Stephen Covey on the indirect representation of knowledge), the outwardly imposed categorization we impose on, say, God’s Secretaries, can never be mistaken for the actual coming forth of the English Bible. Like Wilkins’ contention that language is only something we agree on—the way our Anglophone predecessors decided that the word ‘book’ would be bookended by the letters ‘b’ and ‘k’ and bind a collective of leaves, pages, or scrolls—we must be vigilant never to mistake ideas for nature. Even after Mark first made off with my library, I still possessed the paper and pulp that underpinned it.

In college, I wrote an absurdist play about five spectators at a basketball game who became so invested in the contest their frenzy drew them out of the bleachers and onto the court. There, like Mark’s Great Book Robbery, they displaced their favorite team but still went on to lose the game. My instructor on the course, Orson Scott Card, to help me preserve the play’s absurdity without losing its unsuspecting audience, cautioned me not to climb too high on the ladder of my abstraction. In the same way, when the world of the mind we inhabit exalts itself above the representation of the things of this world, we cut ourselves off from our ability to manipulate those representations to our advantage. “If the characters on the planets I’ve invented made up the rules that govern their societies out of thin air, devoid of a single pointer back to the familiarity of life on Earth, no one on our planet would take me seriously. As a writer, you can’t just make up stuff. It has to be tethered to something readers have a realistic chance of picturing.”

And so, years after losing my library, I have managed to gather up both the flexibility of mind exemplified by one of the keenest of his generation—and the best grasp I can muster of the difference between the real, the abstract, and the absurd—to reclaim it book-by-book. Along the way, I have learned the place—and hue—of each volume. Moreover, as Aristotle suggests and David Grayson models, I am much closer to knowing not just my books and the information they circumscribe—if not myself, untethering as I go what had been its earlier, uncritically assimilated identity—but my relationship to what is real and what can never be more than a negotiation.

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