Billy. Not the goat.
I may have mentioned before that I have too many books. Despite selling some over the years and giving away uncounted volumes and so many more boxed in the garage, I still found myself with stacks—many stacks—crowding the floor in the living room of our house. It is hard to move through that part of the room and, far worse, hard to find books that I knew I owned. These were either lost somewhere in the piles, with stacks blocking other stacks and the spines impossible to read, or on the bookshelves near the corner, unapproachable without the skills of a balance-beam gymnast, high-stepping above the piles and placing one’s for deep in the stack canyons.
Something had to be done.
Enter Billy, the inexpensive bookcase from IKEA. If you are too rich to know firsthand, IKEA furniture is what many people call “disposable furniture” in that it doesn’t look bad once assembled and, if we are talking bookcases which don’t see heavy wear, will last forever. But try to move the piece from one house to the next, or even from room to room, and your odds of damaging surfaces (and worse) are high. It’s an interesting combination of precision pressboard engineering, CNC cutting, and fragility.
You want the Billy, not the junkier ones from Target or Wal-Mart or, god forbid, from Amazon. I had an off-brand once when I was in my early twenties. I shared an apartment with a friend, his bedroom directly above mine. One night there was a tremendous boom, a deafening collapsing sound, stunning in the quiet of the three a.m., night. My roommate ran downstairs fearing some disaster had befallen me. I sat upright as if lifted by a spring, my friend turning on the lights as he reached the doorway. He stood there and I sat there, each gazing around the room. We gazed left, then right, then left again. He had expected to see a fallen wall, a vehicle somehow making around to the back of our unit and rammed into our building’s space. I thought the ceiling had fallen, and I was honestly surprised when the lights went on that I was not laying pinned under some sort of metal beam, the pain not yet registering.
But there was nothing. I was alone on the bed, my side table there next to the bed untouched, the ceiling and walls undisturbed, my desk just as it was the evening before. We looked at each other, puzzled, unbelieving. It had been a huge noise, certainly not a dream from our joint imagination.
We both saw it at the same moment—my non-Billy bookcase, shelves burdened with the weight of all of my art books, had emptied itself onto my floor. The top shelf, we soon discovered, had over time bowed from the strain, slipping free of the four little wooden mini-dowels that supported the shelf from the side walls. That shelf, and all of the books with it, fell onto the shelf below it, tearing that shelf of books free, and those fell on the books below those, the ones on the shelf attached with metal screws, and broke that onto books underneath. The outer frame was still standing but every shelf had failed, accordion-like.
Billy’s have never failed me.
Our plan was to remove a few existing short Billy’s from one side of the room and add several tall Billy’s to the other side, a net gain of more than a dozen linear feet of shelving. Overflow from this would go back into the hallway bookshelves, moving as many of the art books from those to the living room, to join their brethren, and to see if would all fit. The couch would move up to make room.
Pro-tip #1: If you are building more than one Billy—we had five—the most important thing you need to do before all else is to buy a cordless drill. Your hands won’t make it otherwise, after turning those little L-wrenches for hours. I knew this going in.
I learned a few new things during the build.
Pro-tip #2: The bottom shelf is black only on one side—the other is bare presswood. If you attach it with the bare pressboard side facing up you will notice very quickly and can correct your error but you might not notice as quickly if you put the regular shelf board there by mistake, only to discover a one-sided board later on. Plan ahead. Likewise with the top board. On the thin Billys (they come in short and tall models, and wide and thin versions) the top board is also bare on the top side. On the wide models the top board is black on both sides. I don’t know why. Pay attention.
Pro-tip #3: Your floor is not level. It will likely be ever so slightly higher right near the wall where the back corner of the Billy rests, tipping it slightly forward. Pushing it back flat on the wall will raise the front bottom a bit—and it won’t stay that way without shims or attaching the frame to the wall with an L-bracket. That’s just the way life is with assemble-it-yourself bookcases, but what won’t be obvious at first is the flex in the unit, especially before you tack on the lightweight chipboard back.
You wouldn’t think the chipboard would serve any structural purpose, other than keeping the books from falling out the back, but hold off on installing it after the bookshelf is otherwise assembled and give the whole unit a push left or right. Billy wobbles but Billy doesn’t fall down. Tack down the board and the wobble is cut in half. Apparently it needs heavy books weighing it, adding mass, to gain any real solidity, as comforting as that thought is. And here’s the problem. When you lay it flat on the floor to install the chipboard you have no special guarantee that it is “square”—that you aren’t tacking the chipboard in place with the corners not quite at right angles. You won’t notice a problem until you put one Billy up against another—and the side only touches at the bottom or at the top. The gap can be subtle or not so subtle. Maybe carefully squaring up the corners before stacking the back down would solve the problem, I don’t know. I discovered this issue only after all of the shelving units were built.
The first books to go on were my Library of America books. There’s two hundred and seventy-nine of them and I don’t know how that happened. A few years back I thought it would be fun to get a book in the mail every three or four weeks and then suddenly they are taking over entire bookshelves. There’s a lot of good stuff in there—the journals of early colonist John Smith, Melville, of course, reportage from the world wars and, starting just this year, at last, Hemingway. There are also books there that I kept just to keep the set complete. Philip Roth, an author that English majors love but which I do not, a multi-volume, life’s work series maybe published just a few years too early?
I’ve read the ones that no longer have cellophane on them, about a third. They are thirty dollars each, eight thousand three hundred and seventy dollars spent until the next installment arrives, any day now.
Is that excessive?
I’m not a book collector. I don’t have the collecting gene. My photography books and then my art books, for example, which went on the shelves next, don’t form into any aesthetic or intellectual shape. I’ve got everything from Ansel Adams to Hans Haacke, from the seven-volume August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century to the index card-sized History of Photography In Pen & Ink by Charles Woodard, a book of stick-figure pen sketches recreating famous photographs from the art’s history. I don’t aim for a topical focus and I don’t aim for snob appeal. I buy whatever interests me, sometimes to learn what has been done so I can build upon it and sometimes to learn what has been done so I can avoid accidentally duplicating it.
The trick will be to arrange the books in some meaningful order. My youngest daughter, spending her COVID time with us at home after graduating college in May, has a knack for organization and has promised to work her magic for me. We both think significant artists should have their own special section on the shelves but how to do so in practice? What would to do, for example, with Stanley Kubrick?
Billys, like most bookshelf units, has shelves spaced vertically apart at varying distances. You can space them any way you like but generally shorter books go up high, taller books down low. This also helps with the Billy’s center of gravity and overall structural integrity. Billys need all the help they can get.
But books are often uncooperative things. My small Kubrick books are trade paperback-sized, top-shelf stuff. The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, or Eyes Wide Open, a biography of Kubrick by a somewhat disgruntled ex-screenwriter, would go up high. Dan Richter’s Moonwatcher’s Memoir is a full-sized softcover, too large for the top shelf. Richter played the lead man-ape in 2001 and his wonderfully open and honest account of his experiences working on the film is a treasure. Middle-sized shelf. Then we have Through A Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick’s Photographs which sounds at first like an incomplete title but is really just trying to point out that this is a book of Kubrick’s still photography work from his early days at Look magazine. This is a large book, just making it into the largest shelf at the bottom of the Billy.
You can see that the problem right away is that you won’t want to separate the books just because of their non-cooperating sizes and the first solution that springs to mind is just to put them all along the bottom, so everything fits, even if some will look diminutive in that context. But then what do you do with the Dürer books, the Ansel Adams books, and the Hiroshi Sugimoto books, all of which suffer from the same multi-size phenomenon? You will quickly run out of large book space.
Then comes the even more difficult problem of over-sized books. These are the books that just don’t fit anywhere, too tall for the large book section, too deep for the design of the Billy—or any other bookcase—and sometimes both too large and too deep. They are meant to be displayed on some table in some grand house, maybe one with lots of such tables, or brought out like a gifted child, to be shown off for a moment or two early in the evening during a fancy dinner party, serving to make your guests jealous of your undeserved good fortune.
The Taschen deluxe hardback The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—note that this is a different book with a subtly different title than the one mentioned above—is five hundred and fifty pages and over fifteen inches long, left to right. A Billy is only ten and a half inches deep. Many books stick out a little too far but five inches too far? How about Adam K. Johnson’s 2001: The Lost Science? Like other books on 2001 it puts a colon in the title, a lack of imagination in bookmaking contrasting with one of history’s great feats of imagination not only in film but in art and culture generally, but unlike other books the thing is both floppy and huge. When I see it, even just now having a peek while I write this, it strikes me as a giant 12×15-inch coloring book, and I have to do a double-take to make sure it isn’t. Topping them all, so far, is the Stanley Kubrick Archives, which almost takes two people to lift it.
All of these go tightly together thematically. None of these go together at all by size.
These are, however, problems for my daughter to solve. And maybe she doesn’t need to. With all of the books up off the floor and onto the Billys I can find things, not quickly, but find things more quickly than before when I often couldn’t find them at all.
It will be nice to have the books not only better looking, sitting in orderly rows upon their new Billy-black shelves, but to have the books more useful, more willing to give up their wonders, to show me again that superb quote, that uncommon image, that story that had been for me to discover. Having bookshelves magnifies the pleasures of books.
Which, it is obvious to me now, gives me every reason to buy more books.