This week’s question comes from A.V. Club Managing Editor Caitlin PenzeyMoog:
How do you organize your books?
I arrange my shelves by genre and topic. A single shelf is carved out for all-time favorites, where books I reread often live together regardless of affiliation. Having said that, as I critically examine my shelves to answer this question, the categories are very loose. A quick scan of my three shelves shows me clumps: sci-fi, short stories, poetry, plays, comics, socialist texts, spices/food/cooking, nonfiction, memoir, random esoterica. But looking closer, I realize a few shelves are organized in the loosest sense around 19th- and 20th-century literature and contemporary lit—fiction sorted by date. And I’m forced to admit other categories are porous, too. Thurber’s Dogs is in the short story section, though it might belong one shelf over, in memoir. For some reason I don’t have a fantasy shelf, with sets of books by Tolkien, Le Guin, Vance, Pullman, and Martin collected by author but no where close to residing together. Hard-boiled detective novels could probably occupy a shelf together, but they’re wherever. When I arranged the shelves more than two years ago, after moving into a new apartment, I had a plan for topics to bleed into each other; hence the neighborly arrangement of short stories, poetry, and plays, and other nonfiction rubbing shoulders with memoir. All in all, my conclusion is that it doesn’t matter too much how anyone organizes their shelves, and worrying too much about which book belongs where leads to madness. Though I do think alphabetizing is a morally wrong and antithetically banal sorting method.
At this point, my scheme is loose; it’s wild and woolly. I’ve got too many books coming in, and not enough going out, and organization is suffering. But there is a kind of scheme. On the top row of my main bookshelf are some of my favorite books and hardbacks whose covers I like, mostly fiction, in alphabetical order. The rest on the bookshelf is loosely arranged by genre and size (there are a bunch of little paperbacks from Dorothy and Dalkey Archive that stack nicely together). The coffee table hosts three or more stacks at any given time, usually: by the designer Leonard Koren, because his books are nice physical objects and are possible to dip in and out of; a few novels that I will, at some point, read for an ongoing project; and then some magazines and literary journals and maybe a few recently published books. And, now, along the wall next to the bookshelf, in two wobbly stacks that grow more and more unstable the taller they grow, are a lot of recently read and to-read books. The system, as it were, is controlled chaos. Were you to ask me for a particular title, I do not believe it would take me more than a day to find it.
I worked at Borders for six years, which cemented my natural tendencies toward alphabetization. I kept that up for years and years: Everything (not just books, but also CDs, when I used to accumulate those, and spices, and anything else with a name) was neatly alphabetized by author’s last name. When I had multiple books by the same author, they were then alphabetized by title, or chronologically for series like Harry Potter. It was perfect. But at some point I realized I was never going to have a big sprawling house with a big sprawling library, the kind with a ladder to get to the upper stacks and some nice cozy chairs, and I made a very hard decision. Given that I live in a relatively small space, and my bookshelves are in my dining and living rooms, the visual impact of organizing my books by color was pretty appealing. I tried it out for a couple months, which has turned into forever. I don’t often need to go and find a specific book, and I keep my most urgent stack of books to read on a separate shelf anyway. Reorganizing also forced me to get rid of some (it’s fine! there is no reason to be a person who can’t part with her books!), so my current shelves are a nicely curated rainbow of books that I love or want to read, not a towering disorganized monstrosity that taunts me for not reading more.
I’m not positive why I started doing this, but years ago I began arranging my books by height, with my tallest, most ornate volumes residing to the far left of a shelf, where they would cascade downward into smaller, flimsier paperbacks. I own a lot of plays and dime-style paperbacks, so I suppose I just kind of hated the ways they would disappear in between two thicker, wider tomes. I also, I suppose, take an aesthetic pleasure in seeing all my colorful Samuel French scripts placed side-by-side. The same goes for my cheap Pocket Books editions of Stephen King’s library, which I bought as a kid and refuse to upgrade. I liked the way they look as a bunch and, for a while at least, I liked the descending nature of my shelves. All this said, I Marie Kondo’d the majority of my physical books a few years ago and currently own just one small, two-tiered bookshelf. As such, I’ve gotten a bit lax in my modes of organization. Blame my Kindle.
I, being something of a lazy and unfocused person, don’t have any sort of formal book-organizing system. But I know myself well enough to know that there’s a semi-conscious method to my book arrangement. John Waters famously stated, “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” His full quote expands to say that you can (fuck them) once they appreciate reading. Basically, books are another form of social currency, and I’m not above arranging mine to maximize that. I highlight the books I like and obscure the ones I don’t. Just like impulse buys are perfectly calibrated at check-out counters to be at eye-level, I’m going to find a good spot for Akira Kurosawa’s Ran storyboards and screenplay and maybe try and tuck our house copy of Twilight off in a lower corner. Look, I’m not proud of it. It’s both petty vanity and just a dumb way to try to shape people’s perceptions who know better anyway. But as long as books double as objet d’art for the home, I’m going to try and display our best pieces.
I don’t have a central bookshelf that can hold everything, but I have a simple system for my many smaller bookshelves: For comics, I arrange them alphabetically and by publisher, since it would be complete and utter madness to put my Hawkeye books anywhere near my Green Arrow books (they have absolutely nothing in common!). Plus, comics tend to have nice, complimentary art on the spines that makes them look nice together. As for my regular books, the ones that don’t normally have pictures, I just throw them all in a big messy pile, shove that ugly pile onto a shelf of its own where it can’t hurt anyone, and then forget what is there until I buy more books and need to make room. “I forgot I bought this, I can’t believe I never read it,” is a common thing to hear me say when I’m arranging my books, and perhaps someday I’ll realize that the reason I keep forgetting what books I have is because I throw them in a stupid pile.