The Deeply Personal Art of Organizing Your Books

Let’s not have any more fights about rainbows, okay? I know. I know that if you are a person who believes deeply in the power of the alphabet, the books-by-color thing makes your fingers twitch. I have been that person. I have hated on books-as-decor-objects, I have screeched at the idea of all-the-books-spines-in, I have shaken my judgmental little head at the rainbows flooding bookstagram, no matter that I’ll practically jump out of a moving car to see a rainbow anywhere else.

But I have also come around to the fact that every one of these choices is valid. And so are all the other possible options, too.

When did you start to care how your books were arranged on their shelves? When did it matter? This desire can’t possibly set in at a truly young age. Picture books and early readers—and I say this as someone who has cursed her way through shelving them in the kids’ section of a bookstore—resist organization. They simply do not want to be sorted or filed; you’re lucky if you can even read the author’s name on the teeny little spine. They want to be shoved in willy-nilly, wherever they will fit, wherever they will stay upright. Or not. Upright, as it turns out, is overrated sometimes. (Stacking your books horizontally so that more will fit on the shelf is a perfectly respectable way to use space.)

I have admitted before that I tried to make up my own library labeling system as a child, a little pretend Dewey decimal system that made no sense, involved no categories, and may not have even been alphabetical. It was an art, not a science, like all personal book systems. But even then I wanted some form of organization, some way to decide where to put the Beverly Cleary and Lloyd Alexander and Ruth Chew and Katherine Paterson books that were my mainstays before I discovered my mom’s fantasy shelves.

Those shelves were tall, half out of reach, and incomprehensible. Authors went together, I think. The Jo Claytons were side by side until I started pinching them, at least. That has always mattered to me: authors, series, like shelves with like. But it only mattered in that I liked to look at my mom’s books and see how much of an author’s work I’d read. (The C.J. Cherryh shelf was daunting.)

But the books I’ve read as an adult have been in order for a long time. By “in order” I mean alphabetical by author (and chronological within series), not sorted by genre, with only broad categorical sorting. Comics can’t go with novels; the sizes are all wrong. YA books have their own space, as do mass markets. 

We alphabetical types can be tyrants. Part of it is simply that if you have a certain kind of brain, alphabetizing books is soothing. Organizing them within the basic, straightforward, easily graspable concept of the alphabet is a way to make order—one kind of order—out of the chaos of a mountain of books (which is to say, out of a small part of life in all its chaos). It’s satisfying. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve offered to organize friends’ shelves for them. 

But there is also a reality that few alphabet-lovers want to admit: Organizing books alphabetically is its own kind of chaos. It’s subjecting your beloved stories to an arbitrary system that puts books next to each other when those books have absolutely nothing in common other than that they are made up of printed pages that were once thoughts in a writer’s brain. What is Nalo Hopkinson doing next to Nick Hornby? (I kind of like Tamsyn Muir next to Haruki Murakami, though.) This may be even more random in my nonfiction, where Felicia Day and Joan Didion are side by side.

Once you truly accept the fictional chaos wrought by the alphabet, it’s hard to take a forceful stance against any other organizing principle. Books designed with the same color jackets are more likely to have things—themes, moods, genres—in common than books shoved together by their authors’ last names. Retellings? Coming of age stories? Books you read in college? Why not put them in clusters? Why not put a book by another book that it feels like, shelve Angela Carter where she can argue with the Grimms, leave Lev Grossman buddied up to C.S. Lewis, or put every book you read in middle school into its own shelf? (I keep being tempted to reshelve my books in the order in which I read them—a High Fidelity-esque notion that would probably end in tears and a large glass of whiskey.)

Your books are your books, and you get to decide what to do with them. So why are we so horrified when other people don’t use our systems? BuzzFeed once lost its mind over people shelving their books spine-in. “Why do people on the internet care so much about how other people organize their books?” Literary Hub asked

There’s a different answer for every specific outburst of shelf rage, but at the heart of it, I think, is something simple and personal and sometimes hard to say: because people care so much about their books, and because we can be really bad at remembering that another person’s choices have nothing to do with our own. Some of us are more sentimental than others; some identify more with fictional characters than others; some don’t know how to explain exactly how it is that sometimes a book slips under our skin and seeps into our bones, but some books do just that. They aren’t just objects. They’re one more thing—like an unforgettable experience, or a person you love—that adds up to you becoming you.

And at the same time, they’re mass-produced items that you can do whatever you like with. 

Rainbow books, books by size, books with spines in, books that are all leather-bound and ostentatious—they can all seem like the outcome of viewing books as objects rather than stories, of valuing them for their outsides rather than their insides. We’re not supposed to do that, right? We’re not supposed to judge books—or people—by their covers. And if you’re the kind of person that grew up hiding out in the library because your own cover wasn’t right, for whatever reason—if you’re one of those, like I was, it can be hard to even want to look at books as aesthetic objects. 

Books, though, aren’t people. They’re designed, inside and out. They’re containers for stories, not the stories themselves. And you can’t know just from looking at someone’s shelves whether they’ve read and loved every book or even one of them, no matter how they’re arranged. You can only know that something about that book—the object or the story—spoke to them in a way that made them want to keep it. 

If I could transform into any kind of book organizing person, it wouldn’t be a rainbow or an artful stack person. It would be a books-all-over-the-house person. Little shelves here and there, piled with well-loved books and knick-knacks. A wall of shelves, maybe, but also books in every room, books wherever they fit, books on interesting bookcases and books leaned up against the wall like a coffee table. 

I just can’t do it. They have to stay together. At the very least the sections have to stay together, and the unread books in their own space. When my partner and I moved last year, we bought new book storage: little modular boxes (that also, at least in theory, allow us to move the books without packing them). We covered a wall with them, thrilled to finally have A Book Wall. Optimistically, I thought it would have plenty of space for the books we have and the books we’d get. Maybe room for a plant, even.

It’s already crowded, books slipped in across the tops of others, some shelves simply refusing to hold any more. And what’s more, we’re already thinking about changing it up. 

Books are objects. They’re paper and glue and covers and ink. They’re also stories. An ebook isn’t any less valid because it can’t be placed on your shelf when you’re done with it. And a bookshelf that makes no sense to you—whether organized by rainbow or theme or personal chaos or timeline or “this one made me cry” or chronology or, heck, astrology or the fantastical beasts it contains—is just as valid as your own. It’s a shelf full of books. It’s good no matter what you do with it. 

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

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