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What's Your Shelf Style?

The Important Question of How We Keep Our Books

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • April 13, 2021

Diverse Collections and Creative Solutions

We all have different criteria for how to organize our books. Often it has a lot to do with the makeup of our households. Who lives with us? How much space do we have? What kinds of spaces do we have? What kinds of books do we like best?

There is, of course, no right answer to this question. Perhaps your books are cheerfully chaotic. Maybe you have a system that makes sense only to you. And that's great. All that matters is that your books are available to you when you want them. But if you're interested, here are some options for organizing your library.

Appearances Matter

Let's just get this one out of the way. If you arrange your books according to the color of the cover, you're not alone. Author Jennifer Wright, who wrote the vibrantly covered (and timely) Get Well Soon: History's Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, recently showed off her rainbow shelves on Twitter saying, "I feel like coordinating books by color is one of those things you either love or are wrong about." And maybe it makes sense for those of us who are particularly visual. We may remember the color of the cover before other identifying features. This organizational method is pleasing to the eye and, point of fact, some very famous bookish figures like Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling have shared pictures of their own color-coded library during the past year. A few other aesthetic organizing methods include separating hardback from paperback and arranging books by size or by the condition of their covers.

Alphabetical: By Title? Author?

The author of A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara, is one of many who stridently disagrees with the rainbow shelf. "Anyone who arranges their books by color doesn't truly care what's in the books," she told The Guardian in 2017. She relies on the alphabet to organize some 12,000 books in her Manhattan apartment. One reason some of us might not choose the tried and true alphabetic system is that it would require us to remember the authors or titles of our books. (Not always so easy!) Or you may feel like On Photography author Susan Sontag, who commented in a 1992 interview, "I couldn't put Pynchon next to Plato! It doesn't make sense."

Categorically Categorical

Creating separate sections by genre or subject may be the best way to organize if you have a large library like that of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry, who just passed away on March 25. Photos and details of his extensive collection—including the books he would never give up—can be found here. Categories may also be necessary if you have a wide variety of readers in your house, e.g. kids vs adults, nonfiction vs novel, travel vs cooking, read vs unread, etc. Once you have your sections laid out, you may want to employ a secondary organizing system within it.

Chronological or Autobiographical

It may sound a little nerdy, but some people arrange their books chronologically by publication. This may make more sense when it comes to nonfiction like art, philosophy, or history, but it can offer an interesting historical perspective on which fictional writers were publishing around the same time, e.g. Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, could find itself right next to one of your childhood favorites, Emily Climbs (Book two in the Emily Series) by L. M. Montgomery, which came out that same year. Other people may be relying on a different sort of chronology—their own. Consider the autobiographical method. You may remember a description of this from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, only that was with albums. Using this system, your books would be ordered according to when they entered your life, recalling the various phases, relationships, and experiences that you had as you read them.

A Bookish Abode

For us booklovers, full bookshelves and literal stacks of books are part and parcel with the comforts of home. Like good friends, they keep us company and provide solace in dark times. We are reassured by the ability to reach out and pluck our favorite volumes from the shelf, riffle through the pages and revisit our favorite characters and stories. We get a thrill when pulling a fresh, new book from our TBR shelves. We like to touch them, smell them, and often, fall asleep with them draped across our chests. If this sounds like you, we have a few more recommendations:

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Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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