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  • Sam L

Musing on Book-Tetris

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

10th September 2021

In the run-up to the lifting of Lockdown 3 restrictions in London, House of Hodge took in an extraordinary amount of donations – more than 15 or so usual weekly bags and boxes – and happily so, as we rely on donations to keep our stock fresh. Yet as ever once we volunteers have lovingly dusted and priced batches of new-old books, we play a game of Book-Tetris. This involves creating space for even more books among already well-stuffed shelves. The only rule of the game is that book spines or covers must always visible.

While involved in said activity in our rather substantial ‘Women’s Studies’ section my eye was drawn to a small battered copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I had not read it, despite being a Woolf fan, yet I knew it to be a fictional autobiography. I wondered, why was it in Women’s Studies rather than in Fiction or Fantasy?

Naturally, I bought the book (the accepted fate of booksellers is that you will buy a lot of your own stock) and read it in one sitting. Orlando (1928) is a swashbuckling novella about a matinee-idol hero who lives larger than life. With exceptional Woolfian-swagger, the reader is taken on beautifully detailed and wildly exaggerated meta-journeys of the mind and through time, the story being set over some hundreds of years. Orlando explores what society understands to be ‘gender’.

Orlando is often considered the ultimate trans novel. With her unique deftness, Woolf shows us both the possibilities and barriers of being a ‘male’ and a ‘female’ person –sometimes both at the same time.

Spoiler alert: at one point Orlando wakes up a different sex but is the same person. S/he later finds a soul-mate in another gender-shifter like herself. As a woman s/he is property, yet has sexual potency. As a man s/he is free. S/he is comfortable as neither gender on its own; the need is for both. The novel is fantastical and funny, exploring the power and beauty of what we would today call being ‘non-binary’.

Almost 100 years later, I’m relieved that we are more regularly expressing the nonsense of gender conformity.

But as a bookseller my concern is actually far more pragmatic than any of this gender philosophy: my question: “Where in our shop does this book belong?”

Do we need a new ‘Intersectional Being’ section, where Orlando can cosy up with the likes of Audre Lorde and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others? Le Guin once said of herself, “Where I can get prickly… is when I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and a poet. Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

Sorry Ursula, sorry Virginia but in this daily game of Book-Tetris, we must shove you somewhere. And so Orlando, a book about non-conformity, we shove into the Women’s Studies section and we embrace this beautiful irony.

- By Sam (volunteer of some 6 years)

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