“Where is that stupid book?” I ranted, unfairly insulting the book I searched for in my frustration. I KNEW I owned it, but I couldn’t lay my fingers on it to save my soul.
I spent five minutes scanning shelves and looking at the piles I had stacked in various corners of the room, never finding the sought-after book.
It was my own fault.
When my husband built me new bookshelves for my office, I was so excited to have more book space that I just started loading them onto the waiting spaces. Then we unpacked six big bins of books we had stored in the garage. Those big bins included two dozen old photo albums and scrapbooks along with various books from my past, including two I had on loan from my daughter and packed away for the last seven years! (Sorry, Cassie!)
Happy to finally have my own library and in a hurry to get everything off the floor and out of bins, I placed my books on any shelf where they would fit without alphabetizing or organization other than a few loose categories. (Photo albums, after all, had to be put together on some of the extra-large bottom shelves. Other than that, it was a free-for-all.)
Then, for the next several months, I drove myself crazy trying to find a particular volume when I wanted to find a quote or check a reference. Something had to change. I’m a detail-oriented, organized person, and my book chaos was bad for my mental health.
The perfect plan?
I thought a lot about how to put my books in their rightful places. How I should arrange them on the shelves? What system I could use that help me find a volume quickly? Then I spent a Saturday afternoon truly organizing my personal library, a joyful task of stroking covers, remembering plots, greeting characters, and rubbing elbows with great writers of the world.
If you’re reading this, you probably understand a love affair with books and may have wrestled with the same problem. If you’re reading this and you don’t love books, you must be interested in nerdy, quasi-crazy, literary ladies obsessed with stories. (And I thank you for that.)
Other authors have the same quandary
Is it wrong to rejoice to find out that others have the same problem?
When The Washington Post published a piece on how authors arrange their books, I discovered that my debate over book organization wasn’t solely my quirk. Other writers spend lots of time and energy figuring out how to organize their literary treasures, too. (I didn’t feel so crazy, then!)
If you’re a bibliophile, here are five personal, practical ways to organize your beloved books for your consideration.
By the color of the spine
Some authors like Jennifer Weiner, organize books by their color.
Yellows with yellows. Blues with blues. Greens with greens.
"A rainbow reading room, for sure. The colors, when grouped together, help make the room feel less chaotic. Since books are physical objects we live with, the theory is that we should use them so they’re aesthetically pleasing as well as intellectually fulfilling."
Most of us do remember the color of a book cover, so this visual cue may work for you. For me, I can’t embrace this because I’m too rigid to know what to do with all those books that have mixed colors on their spines. Then I’d have to decide whether to arrange it by the color on the upper half of the spine or by the percentage of the predominant color!
The chronological approach
Put the books you read at a certain period of your life together. Elin Hilderbrand groups books according to chronological time. She has books she read when she was single and living alone in New York on one shelf. Then her other life experiences are reflected accordingly: books she read when she had her baby; books she read during cancer treatment; books she read during her divorce.
Certain works definitely influenced me at certain periods of my life, as in the article below. But while I remember specific books, I can’t recall enough of them consumed in any given era to organize them by shelf.
The category system
Several authors mention grouping books into a subject category. World War II, memoir, autobiography, reference, art, cooking, to-be-read, and more.
Some writers have distinct sections for fiction and non-fiction, separating the two.
Alphabetically, of course…
Many authors noted that they used an alphabetical system for their volumes. The majority of them organized books by the author’s last name.
Chris Bohjalian uses two different systems for his books. He organizes fiction alphabetically by the last name of the author, and since he’s a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald he has two whole shelves dedicated to him.
Then, he arranges his mostly-history, non-fiction books chronologically by the event it describes. So the earlier the subject matter of the book occurred, the closer to the beginning of the shelf. The Civil War books would be placed before the World War I books.
One author, Garrett Graff, uses multiple systems. He organizes first by subject matter, then divides those by color, and finally by topic. Wow. And I thought I was obsessed!
My current choice of organizing books
I, too, chose a combo approach. Select topics have their own area in my library. The shelves closest to my computer have my collection of writing books where Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginning shares space with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. Stephen King cohabitates with Natalie Goldberg, Ann Handley, and Annie Dillard.
Quilting books, western history, and poetry volumes make up the other big categories.
Everything else is placed alphabetically by title, which I often remember more than I remember author’s names.
I used to have a separate section for To-Be-Read books, but it got too big, so I disseminated those into the general shelves where fiction and non-fiction, make-believe and reality, live in perfect harmony. Now, browsing my shelves brings with it a sense of adventure, letting me choose my next read based on my mood, and not what was placed on one shelf of waiting “reads.”
Finally, I can put my finger on a title in seconds, reducing my stress, beautifying my books, and making me one happy reader.
Hope this helps you, too.