In the last months of 2022, I had, for various reasons, occasions to move a lot of my books around. I could get into the whys and the wherefores, the reasons and the inciting incidents, but the important thing is this: I highly recommend this process.
Put your hands on your books. All of them. Are you sure you know what’s in there?
The reason for moving all the fiction was simple: The bookshelves overflowed and needed to be expanded. I looked forward to this process for the weeks it took for more shelving to arrive. I would sit with my morning coffee and think, I get to rearrange you soon at the shelves.
With a little more room up top, I moved everything up, trying to leave just a little space at the end of each shelf for the books I knew would be added before too long (and a lot of room in the Ws, because Chuck Wendig’s big chonky Wayward is in my TBR pile). I dusted and tidied and only found one dead spider along with all the cat fur. Now, everything is lined up neatly; everything belongs where it is. And I want it all to be there. There wasn’t anything about which I thought, Well, this can go in the discard pile. It was a deeply satisfying feeling.
Pulling down and replacing every book on your main shelves can be a kind of ritual, a trip down memory lane that reminds you, in brief flashes and long reveries, how you got to where you are. It’s turning to the back of a book to find the name and semester of the class it was read for, scratched lightly in pencil in the back cover. It’s remembering which books were purchased in which cities; which were gifts; which you have duplicates of, in case a friend needs them. (If you don’t hoard duplicates of your favorites, this is another thing I recommend.)
Every time I’ve moved, I’ve gotten rid of books, for better or for worse. Rearranging is also seeing where the holes are, and considering whether they need filling. What do you miss? What library reads do you wish you had your own copies of? Which books were lent out, never to return? Should you replace them?
Take the books off the shelves. Dust them, thumb through them, find yourself surprised about what you do and don’t remember. Line them up however you like—by size, by color, by author, by vibes—and then, when everything you’ve read is sorted, tackle the real challenge.
The unread books.
When our holiday plans went awry, I did what any sensible book collector would do in my place: I spent Christmas Eve piling every single book from the unread books bookcase onto the dining room table, dusting them, considering them, and deciding their fates.
I look at these books all the time, but touching them, moving them around, deciding how to put them back (on which shelf? in which order?) is something entirely different. The unread books have been piling up for at least two decades—a sentence which is worrying yet inevitable when a person has been a reader since a very young age. Some of those aging books are still things I want to read. And some, inevitably, are not.
Taking all the books down was a chance to organize and cull, but primarily, it was an experience in simply remembering what was there, how it got there, and why. You can look at shelved books until the cows come home, but it’s not the same as actually taking them off the shelves. Any bookstore browser can tell you this: Looking is one thing, handling another. I could look at that shelf every day and still discover, in the reorganizing, that I’d forgotten something—a book tucked behind another, one in the back corner behind the cat tree, something with a small spine that just didn’t stand out.
I’d forgotten I had Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. I put all the Catherynne Valente books together and was alarmed at how behind I am (I’ve still read as many of her books as I own unread ones, but she has written a lot of books). I piled up the books about work and life and jobs and balance; I made another stack of sort-of fairytale/folklore-y novels. One stack is “books by people I at least sort of know and should definitely have read by now.” Another is nature-y books. There is a lot of -ish and -like and kinda in these stacks. They are themes, not categories.
This is where I indulge my chaos. The unread books had been sorted into nonfiction and fiction, but that felt too rigid. The SFF piles needed shuffling, new books next to old, The World We Make waiting there for me right by Assassin’s Fate (I’m still not ready). All the shelving habits in which I do not indulge for the read books get indulged in the unreads: size, theme, mood, basically anything but color. (Nothing against color! I’m just never happy with it.)
I can’t tell you how many treasures I found, how many impulse purchases or neglected gifts or long-forgotten books seemed to take on new life as I stacked and sorted and restacked. My pile of Australian fiction that I meant to read when I got back from a friend’s wedding! All the Annie Dillard books I’ve been meaning to read! The Only Good Indians, still under consideration in the “Will it be too scary for me?” category!
Even if you don’t have twenty years’ worth of unread books, sorting through those you do have can be an effective way to remember why you picked them up in the first place. It might move new books to the top of the pile. It also might move some books out of the pile altogether.
Because that, of course, was part of the point. The books were double-stacked. It was too many. I had to let some go. And if you’re aghast at the idea of getting rid of books you haven’t read yet, I understand. They are all potentials, all things you might yet love. But books, like anything, have their time, and they have their time in your life. That essay collection that felt so vital in 2018 now feels like something from another era. Books bought on impulse in the 2000s are tweens and teens now, and some of them don’t resonate the way they once did. Some do! And some feel a little bit like unnecessary anchors, things weighing you down, distracting from what you really want to be reading.
It’s okay to not want to read something any more. (It might come back to you later anyway, if you really need it.) It’s okay to narrow down, to clear out, to freshen up—bookshelves as much as anything else. The things that are leaping out at me from the rearranged bookcase feel different—looser, brighter, lovelier. I want to read them all at once. First, I need to finish the book I bought for a book group three months ago. The one I had entirely forgotten until I found it wedged between hardcovers on the unread shelf.
Originally published January 2023.