Meditations on Cataloging the Telluride Library

In the winter of 2001, for a variety of deep and compelling reasons, I found myself faced with the prospect of spending yet another vacation alone in Ann Arbor. Having previously learned everything that being miserable and bored has to teach, I doughtily resolved to explore other dimensions of enforced solitude. So, with an inspiring vision of myself as a latter-day Thoreau in mind, I made myself a plan for living a life of soul-cleansing monastic discipline within the confines of Telluride house for two weeks.

This is adapted from a piece written in December 2001, when I was living at the University of Michigan Telluride house, thanks to a room-and-board scholarship made possible by a curious character named L. L. Nunn. I thought it would make an apt piece for labor day, seeing as my new material is dangerously stalled.

In my initial burst of enthusiasm, I almost decided to adopt a vow of silence and decline the two holiday-party invitations that I had, but pragmatism prevailed and I penciled the parties into my calendar to avoid going stir crazy. Even Zen monks in sesshin (that’s “retreat”) have their sanity-preserving social interludes.The central activity of my experiment with monkhood, I decided, was to be the cataloging of the Telluride library. To approach the Zen ideal of no-mind one needs a thoroughly mindless task. So I set down my laptop in the august oak-paneled interior of the library, and set about my task with the enthusiasm of a demented Sisyphus.

The library, I discovered, had approximately 725 books in its shelves at the time. Roughly a third of it was fiction; more interestingly, roughly a third of it was unquestionably junk, which will, I predict, remain unread for eternity, making the task of cataloging satisfyingly absurd.

Those who have never attempted an organization task of at least moderate complexity do not realize the fascinating intellectual challenges that lurk beneath the soul-purifying spadework that lies at the surface. The temptation to indulge in the intellectually satisfying, but dangerously anti-Zen business of inventing the more-perfect cataloging scheme can ruin all the potential benefit of the actual data entry. With the idea of keeping that tendency firmly in check, I picked the simplest possible cataloging scheme: I’d enter just the title, author, publisher, binding and a few keywords into a spreadsheet.

The tendency of the human mind to invent challenges is amazing. It refuses to keep things simple. I hadn’t done more than a few dozen books when I realized that I had unconsciously been working out more efficient ways to do the data entry, optimizing the number of books I took down from the shelf at a time, standardizing the keywords I was using, and so on. Mindlessness is hard. I stopped myself when I could.

Block and Barrel chips

I soon got into a zone of data-entry. I’d enter about 100 books at a time, get up, walk around a bit, drink a cup of tea and then get back to the typing. The task was just demanding enough to prevent serious daydreaming, but not challenging enough to be forbidding and procrastination-inducing. Ideal conditions for getting into a zone. It took about 14 hours over two days to finish the data entry. I felt noble and pure when I was done.

That feeling did not last. The evening I finished, I went to a party and drank too much wine and had just enough fun to disrupt the equanimity of monkhood. The next day, I set about the more interesting (and less spiritually uplifiting) task of “massaging” the data (as Mckinsey consultants call it) into some sort of broader structure, and rearranging the books accordingly. Fortunately though, it involved a good deal of lifting, making piles on the floor and climbing chairs, which ensured that the intellectual element wouldn’t completely vitiate the benefits of hard-won no-mind.

Digressing a bit, library cataloging is a good way of getting a God-complex. Nothing puts Aristotle and Wittgenstein in their place quite as well as the act of placing their lifework in the context of Calvin and Hobbes comic books and and Leon Uris thrillers. Or gleefully and arbitrarily force-fitting some self-proclaimed, revolutionary “beyond categories” book into a category. Most satisfying is the act of expending the same amount of effort on appalling junk and alleged works of genius.

Cataloging is the great leveler of creative minds. Art history and information science majors are therefore control freaks.
The Telluride library is a cold place in winter. I got a terrible cold from my labors, which I nursed for three days. I was miserable, but managed to beat “bored” by experimenting carefully with all the varieties of Bigelow teas in the dining hall, and figuring out which one relieves a cold the best (the answer is Lemon Lift). I also ate way too many bags of Block and Barrel chips, which saddened me, since one of my original, more prosaic motivations in embarking upon the cataloging was to kill my tea-and-chips addiction.

Lemon Lift

Endote (2007): Apologies if the end seems a little chopped off — had to delete the stuff that wouldn’t make sense outside the context of the group of people living in the house at the time. Libraries and great minds go together. You must read Borges’ Library of Babel if you haven’t already.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I’m living at the Telluride House right now and I’m on the newly-formed Institutional History Committee. One of our duties is to take care of the library. We were under the impression that the books had never been cataloged. I’m sure there are some different ones now, but your spreadsheet would help a lot. Do you know how we might get a hold of it?

    I think we’d also be interested in keeping in touch with you, since you lived there when it was first beginning.

    My email address is I’d love it if you’d drop me a message. I have no idea who you are by the way, as I couldn’t find a name associated with this blog.