Recently it occurred to me that I own a lot of books.
I’m not sure how this escaped my notice for so long. But I had absolutely been telling people, “I don’t own a lot of books. I really don’t!” On a whim last week I decided to take my skinny, metal folding bookshelf and put it in my study. I thought I’d pick up a few books lying around the house and get them off the ground. You know, reclaim flat surfaces so the cats can sprawl out on them. I’d save a couple shelves for future purchases and—
I filled it in about 20 minutes.
I was totally blown away because I genuinely believed that I didn’t own many books anymore. Over the last year and a half I have made a really big effort to donate unwanted books to the library, selling them for credit at used bookstores, or giving them to people I know who might like them, a purging process known to library folk as “weeding the collection.” So I thought I had drastically reduced my collection. Wrong!
So now that I had an actual “collection” full of books I am eager to read, I decided that I wanted to organize. And thus began a week-long process of coughing into unexpected dust clouds, both breaking and breaking down a large Target bookcase, and flexing unknown engineering muscles as I put together a few new bookshelves.
Since I’m a volunteer shelver and shelf reader at my town’s library, past intern at two libraries, and second year library science graduate student, naturally this was a fun experiment that stretched my information organization skills.
I also geeked out and came up with the following 8 creative ways to organize your home library’s bookshelves. We’ve all seen bookshelves arranged by color, by genre, by author, and by complete and utter chaos (to each his own), but what about by era, rating, or emotion?
1. Emotion: Or “The Feels”
I’m a very feelings oriented person. When I think of a book I read, one of the first things I remember is how it made me feel. Typically a really good book gives me a Book Hangover, a paralyzing condition that settles in after you’ve read an outstanding book. The Goldfinch was like that, as was Flowers from the Storm. You search for days trying to find a replacement. Eventually you just have to move on. Other books make you feel warm and cozy, like you’ve just settled into your favorite chair on a cold, rainy Saturday with a mug of piping hot tea nearby, snuggle socks on, and an affectionate cat nestled in next to you. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the quintessential comfort novel, a classification it shares with Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon novels.
If you find your reading is heavy on the emotions, where the first thing you say to someone when recommending a book is, “I felt…” or “It made me feel…” you might want to try organizing by emotions like melancholy, uplifted, frightened, informed, inspired, reflective, depressed, loved, proud, and hopeful.
Read on for 7 more ways to organize your bookshelves…
2. The Book Shelf of Fate: Or, how to never be single again
In library science there is a fun program called “Blind Date with a Book.” This usually pops up around Valentine’s Day and involves wrapping a book in some kind of paper and sticking a barcode–perhaps with a vague description–on the cover. Books are then displayed and a patron takes home a book that she cannot judge by the cover. Theoretically you are introduced to something you would not have picked for yourself. I love that idea, especially since I’ve got so many books in my to-be-read (TBR) pile that at this point, any reading is good reading. To recreate this in your house, simply flip books over so the spines face inward and the foreedge (there’s a new word!) faces out. Now you’ve got yourself a whole lot of blind dates to be had.
And since I haven’t been on a date in a while, I’m really grooving on this idea—especially the titles that are clearly romance novels…mmm…
But seriously, if you’ve got so many books that you are totally clueless on where to start, this is a good option for letting your reading be determined by happenstance and fate, two things I definitely believe in. Everyone wins Russian roulette sometimes…
3. Setting: Destination reading
Organizing your books by country, state, region, or continent is a cheap way to buy yourself a passport to take you anywhere in the world. If you’re someone who likes evocative settings, this will not only show you where your gaps are in collection development but also help you narrow down your search for the next great read. Plus if you’re in the dark days of winter or the dog days of summer and you want to go somewhere with the complete opposite climate, there you go. It’s that easy.
For example, my favorite place in the whole world is the UK, and I can’t count how many times I find myself wishing I was there. To remedy this situation I often pick up a book set there and, if it’s any good, allow myself to be whisked away to London or Yorkshire.
Sometimes, though, I just want to get lost, like right now when I’m reading The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye and feel like I’ve been teleported to India. If that’s the case I want to go somewhere completely unlike where I am now.
When I’m really frustrated with humanity, I just want to get the hell out of this world. Go ahead and organize by planet if you want. It’s up to you!
And if you’re in doubt on where to classify something, go with the primary setting or at least the one that is of most interest or is most evocative to you.
4. The Time Machine: Sorting by era
Have you ever wanted to time travel? If you’re having an Outlander moment and you want to dip into another time, experiment with organizing by era. I’m not really strong with historical fiction myself, but it’s an active project I’m working on.
I have been struck with curiosity of what it would be like to live in Victorian London or hang out with the writers of the Lost Generation in 1920s Paris. Classifying my shelves by era saves you time if you want to leave the 21st century and soak up a so-called “simpler” time.
For books that include actual time travel, shelve them however you feel is best or maybe primary setting. Perhaps they get their own category.
A word of caution: Try not to stick all the thick books next to each other. I did this with my Classics shelf and it literally broke the bookcase. Looking back I should have seen this coming since I was a Victorian nut in college and there’s only so much Dickens in a row that a bookcase can take. Be mindful about the weight of your books. If you’re someone who loves 800 page novels, try not to group them all together.
5. Rating: Greatest hits
Ever since I joined Goodreads in 2010 and then got serious about tracking my reading in 2011 I’ve started thinking in terms of star ratings. I don’t keep many books I’ve read that fall below 3/5 stars, so really this organization system is for the books you read that you really enjoyed, liked a lot, or loved.
I keep the standard 5-star rating system, though I add in a whole separate category of “No stars,” or books that were so god awful they don’t even deserve the 1-star rating, and “Beyond five stars,” or books that transcend the 5 star system. Naturally I’ve weeded the bottom of the barrel, the mediocre and the miserable, and donated them. However, there are some that are in a special section of hell that are so bad they deserve to be kept, such as The Selection series. In any case, this is a way to quickly determine which books are on your desert island list.
Obviously you’re going to have to group your TBRs separately.
6. Lifespan: Looking back, looking forward
Sometimes I feel like reliving what it was like to be 17, when the world seemed full of promise and mine for the taking, when my biggest concern was math homework (math! hahaha) or mastering the new marching band routine for Friday’s game. Maybe that’s why I’ve developed quite a collection of YA, or maybe it’s because YA is really great…in any case, I find that most of the books I have represent the teen years through late twenties early thirties. If I wanted to reimagine my youth or ponder my 40s I can organize my books by lifespan.
I’d do it by Childhood (0-12), Adolescence (13-17), College/New Adult (18-22), Twenties (23-29), Thirties (30-29), and so on.
Obviously this is not going to work for A Song of Ice and Fire or other books where there isn’t one main character, which means these books can be housed in their own category or else you can pick one character you most identify with or an age that you are grooving with at present.
Or for Bildungsroman (coming of age) novels like The Goldfinch or David Copperfield, I recommend putting them together because sometimes you specifically want to read about characters whose stories stretch across many years.
7. Theme: “Life” and “Death” and everything in between
If you’ll notice on my review policy page or even from the tag cloud on the side of the homepage here, I’ve got a few themes that I really enjoy reading about. Maybe you’ve noticed that you also stick to a few major themes, like war, sports, identity, family, class/labor, animals, food-related, etc. If so, this might be a good way to think about your book collection.
I’ve found that any one of these suggestions on how to develop your collection tells you a lot about yourself and your reading habits. This is a good way to group your books and forces you to think outside the box. And go ahead and loosely determine these themes. They can be as specific (British chick lit featuring sweet shops, bakeries, and candy stores) or as vague as you like (Life) and are definitely fluid.
8. Nothing is random
I was fortunate enough to take an “Experimental Writing” class with the avant garde poet, Charles Bernstein, when I was in college. It was flipping amazing, and on the first day we went over an assignment we had to do ahead of our first session. I had been watching a lot of Summer Heights High, which features the awesome character of Ja’mie, a totally dumb bitty exchange student at Summer Heights High who thinks that everything is “random.”
Since the word was stuck in my head, I made the mistake of suggesting a poem’s construction was “random,” an opinion that solicited gasps and snickers from my classmates who had taken classes with Charles already. I got a stern (but ultimately lighthearted) correction from Charles, who told me that “nothing is random.” And I’ve never thought of that word the same way since.
So back to task. Let’s say you’ve gone ahead and organized a few of your shelves this way. You’ve got your thematic shelf, your location shelf, your era shelf, your blind-date shelf, and so on. But you’re stuck one day and really can’t decide what to read. This is when “random” intervenes.
All you have to do is go down your bookcase and for each shelf, select a “random” book in the dead center of the shelf. Group these books together in their own special shelf, and you’ve got a supply of books to reread or experience for the first time.
This is a great way to force yourself to get more books read that have been sitting on the shelf forever or rediscover old favorites from before, and it’s a little like your Book Shelf of Fate. Ultimately sometimes making a decision is paralyzing and you just need to prepare for the day when you’re too indecisive to choose.
Go Forth and Shelve, Little One…
So there you have it, 8 ideas on how to organize your bookshelves that go beyond color, genre, and mere last-name classification systems. Despite the cost of replacing bookshelves and the agony of reorganizing in a heatwave, on the whole this was a lot of fun. My study is fortified with books, perfect for capturing heat in the cold winter months to provide insulation for a cozy day.
Do any of these ways look appealing to you? Which ones would you like to try? Leave a comment below.