‘Behind every utopia there is always some great taxonomic design: a place for each thing and each thing in its place.’
I’m guilty of autobiography-by-Venn-diagram on social media platforms. List enough character traits, interests, activities, likes and loves, and one’s true self must stand unique at the intersection of each circle, right? I’m not alone in assuming this – it’s a common tendency among librarians, revealing our desire to reduce the world to tidy lists, and demonstrating an awkward truth about how close the profession comes to self-parody.
George Perec also worked in a library, and true to form, was very fond of cats. But Perec’s Venn diagram would be as inimitable as his literary style. He was a paratrooper, a cruciverbalist, and an obsessive maker-of-lists. A holocaust orphan, an eponym of an astronomical object, and an archivist too.
Perec is famed for his experimental novels and eclectic essays. Few realize that he also had a day job, sorting records at a medical research library, even at the height of his fame. Perhaps the routine banality was an escape from literary absurdity, or an anvil for his hobby, for Perec was an informal classificationist of some significance. His ‘Notes brèves sur ľart et la manière de ranges ses livres’ (‘Brief notes on the art and manner of arranging one’s books‘) is both a light-hearted and a deeply intellectual look at a perennial problem – how to best arrange one’s private library?
The longer Penser/Classer (Think/Classify, or the inadequate Thoughts of Sorts, in Bellos’ recent translation) imagines humanity’s attempts at ordering the world as farce. Perec’s lack of rigour and preference for verbal play over analysis does not endear him to many classificationists. But in confessing his profound bafflement as to how we make sense of existence, his meta-classification unveils the quixoticism of our attempts to codify the quicksilver of nature. ‘Taxonomy,’ he confesses ‘can make your head spin.’