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How are your books organized?

My shelves look more like this,
than this.

My own short answer is: they’re not.

I don’t know why, but I am often suspicious of people whose shelves are completely alphabetized or arranged by genre or size or, gah, color.  My books tend to be more of a Pigpen-style cloud than anything organized, than anything resembling a navigable library shelf – maybe it’s a reaction to working in a bookstore for the last four years.  People ask me how I find things, but I have a basically four bookshelves in my home – how far could they wander?

How do you have your books arranged?  Defend your methods, please.  Make me see the light.

49 thoughts on “How are your books organized?

  1. I have books all over the house and my separation techniques generally run on what sort of space I have available. I have one whole shelf for books of poetry…both small press and the good old standards, one for paperbacks and then several for hardcover. Sometimes they are arranged by size if I am feeling adventurous, but mostly they have a semi-pigpen sort of arrangement. I usually pick my books out by their cover when I need a new novel to read so having them in a certain order means nothing. I say…”Gee…where do I want to go this time?” and get started.

    I love that top picture by the way. Is that Italy?

    1. Yes – space is always the issue, right? And while some books are standing up right next to books that are laying in a stack in front (that’s right – at least two of my biggest shelves are two books deep in sections) I do like to fill in space if it opens when I take a book – because chances are it’s not getting placed back on the shelf in the next week or so.

      What happens with the poetry shelf once it’s full? Where do the surplus poetry books go? Thank God, they’re skinny.

      I don’t know where that picture is from. I tried to track it for almost an hour last night because I knew people would ask, and I can’t figure it out. It was in some image thread on a design website and the source gave no hints and now I can’t even find the source. Sorry! We will have to make our own.

      1. Some of the poetry books have gone in boxes into the closet. I have hundreds! I have about 40 to read with more coming daily and next month I am tackling the pile.

        I don’t keep all of my books (the novels). The only ones I keep are the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction. I am reading the whole list and keeping them to give to my daughter when she goes off to college. That gives me another 10 years to get through about 45 of them plus the new winner each year. I think it will be an impressive gift….not sure she will think so but I will give it anyway. The books I don’t keep I put on a list at PaperBack Swap. I get a credit for each book I send out to someone and I can use that to get more poetry or books I want to read.

        Sorry to make you do all that looking for the photo!!

  2. you will not like me much. i have all my poetry books together, alphabetized by author’s last name, same with the fiction, and nonfiction.

    then there’s the to-read shelf, which is overflowing and not organized in any fashion.

    and of course i don’t have enough room for all the books so there are also boxes of books that i currently have no room for on the shelves.

    1. Oh, Ryan, I like you fine. I’m interested in the ‘why’ of all this.


      1. When you take a book off the shelf, does that spot just remain empty until the book returns?

      2. As soon as you buy a book, does it get integrated? Doesn’t that take a lot of constant shifting? Or do you start with some face-outs to build in a little extra room from the start? (Hahaha, bookstore lingo – thought you might like that.)

      3. Nonfiction is all together, alphabetized by author? No separation out of travel books or reference books or memoirs to be with memoirs? This might be one of my biggest problems when I try to think about arranging my books – makes sense if things are a definite jumble, but the idea of ‘Eyewitness Travel: Top Ten Bangkok’ next to ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ makes me cringe, but a million subsections feels overwhelming in a different way.

      Oh, wait – I see – the books get integrated into the system once you’ve read them…

      4. Are the boxes organized? If not, I think you might be a Pigpen-style book owner, too, with make-up on.

      1. 1. Unfortunately I have a crazy wild 19 month old, so I can’t leave the spots empty. I have to pack my shelves as tight as possible so he doesn’t pull them all out. So the shelves are constantly in flux, even the ones with all the books I’ve read, as I try to make room for the newly read ones.

        2. Yes, lots of shifting. I’ve recently removed all my duplicates which are now in a pile on top of one bookshelf. Also, the owner at the store I run, aka my mother in law, is always doing face-outs. They drive my ocd nuts.

        3. I don’t have any travel books. Most of my nonfiction is memoir and/or biography. There are a few hold overs from some awesome history classes I took as an undergrad, but I figured they might as well squeeze in.

        4. The boxes are completely unorganized as some of them have recently been reclaimed from my mother’s garage. Meanwhile when I got married and moved into my wife’s home there was very little room for all my stuff, so a lot of my stuff remains unpacked after nearly three years.

        5. I forgot about my shelf for comics/graphic novels. These are organized in the same way as my other books. And I’m in the process of trying to find room to make a chapbook shelf and a lit mag shelf. Those might be pipe dreams.

        I am incredibly disorganized except where my ocd makes me organized, it’s a very strange balance.

        1. Ryan, I arrange my books the exact same way. Same categories, and alphabetical. And I have a very active 19 month old (girl). But, having just moved from a one-bedroom apartment to a house, I have more shelves then I’m used to. So I leave gaps for future books. I put things in those gaps: Tintin figures, metal toy zeppelins, rocks. But what my daughter loves to grab is an Endy Chavez (Mets) bobblehead doll portraying his unreal catch in the 2006 playoffs on the day the Mets lost the playoffs (that’s what we have to celebrate). She thinks he looks like a baby. When she removes him, my books fall down.

          1. haha! i keep my figurines and toys out of reach from my son, if for no other reason than i’m selfish haha. my little boy always goes straight for House of Leaves on my shelves. every time. he also likes to try and pull my record collection off it’s shelf. the kid’s got taste.

  3. We haven’t counted, but we estimate there’s anything up to 10,000 books in this house. So we have to organise them. Organisation is just the easiest way to make the library usable.

      1. Yowza. Do what you do. I have no idea how many books I have. Can you share your estimation system? I am bad at eyeballing.

        1. I know we have around 2,500 volumes of hardback fiction (I’ve counted and databased them), at a quick estimate we have around twice that many volumes of paperback fiction, and the non-fiction is at least as many as the hardback fiction if not rather more.

          We actually moved into our 5-bedroom house mainly to accommodate the books, and even that is getting a bit squeezed. Roughly the arrangement is hardback fiction in the dining room, paperback fiction in the spare room, poetry in the bedroom, literary criticism, biography, history, essays in my study, feminism, post-colonialism, myth, food in my wife’s study, travel, science, American Civil War in boxes in the room we haven’t got around to shelving yet.

          It’s meant to be a working library, we’re referring to these books all the time, so they have to be accessible and we have to know where they are.

  4. Mine are currently in piles all over the floor, because I just moved. I’ll be organizing them over the weekend, and have been thinking for weeks now about how I’m going to do it.

    All of my literary criticism is going in my bedroom, so it’s nearby.

    And all of the fiction and poetry is going out in the living room, so it won’t be near me when I sleep.

    The comics and graphic novels etc. are going in the bedroom.

    The dictionaries and other reference books are in the bedroom.

    Everything else is going in the living room. Including all the DVDs and CDs. Don’t want things like that near the bed.

    1. I am interested in why you don’t want fiction and poetry near you when you sleep. Would you stay up all night reading?

      Lit crit is what you want nearby, most? I don’t get it.

      Dictionaries make sense to have nearby. It’s like back-up.

      1. Actually, I don’t think I’d mind. I think I just want the non-criticism stuff closer at hand. My computer’s in there, too, and I’ll probably be reaching for the critical stuff first when I’m writing.

      2. I also keep my poetry right by the bed….on both sides. I do that because sometimes I am too tired to concentrate on a novel, but have enough energy and desire to read a few poems. I find it overwhelming to sit down and consume an entire collection of poems. Most of my books are in my bedroom. I have 5 shelves in there. I also have one extra shelf in the computer room for the overflow. My dictionaries are at my desk to use while I write because most of my editing is done while transcribing poems and fiction from the handwritten copy to the database.

        I don’t do Lit Crit. I like to form my own opinions. :)

          1. Too erudite for me! ^_^

            Uh, so I know that there’s this black page in Tristram Shandy… I haven’t seen it but I know it’s in there, I think. …Anyone else like that black page?

            More books should have all-black pages. Like, lots of them!

            1. Perec waxes poetic on the ordering of bookshelves in SPECIES OF SPACE. He talks about the flaw in ordering alphabetically, by publisher, by genre, by publication date, etc etc etc. It’s beautiful!!

    1. As stated above, I don’t know and it seemed that the source of the photo is not telling either.

      Shall we build one ourselves our of Legos, Molly?

    2. It looks an awful lot like a place in Italy an ex-gf wanted to take me when we went to visit her family over there. I can’t remember the name off the top of my head though. If I remember, I’ll let you know!

  5. mine are not really organized at all. although i do try to keep books by the same author together. i don’t too much mind having to search for the book i need–it gives me a chance to browse, and stumble upon things i’d forgotten about. generally, i keep my to-read/currently-reading books in a stack near my desk and by my bed.

    1. Yes! Browsing! I usually have a stack of books by my bed, too, that I’m working through.

      Magazines and books that come in the mail and chapbooks stay on the kitchen table to read at meals until they are finished.

  6. Not organized. Actually: I have one part of one shelf that is organized by color, because I was sitting under it one day, and daydreaming, and noticed that three books there had a similar, earthy beige thing going on. I quickly scanned the surrounding shelves and found a couple more to match.

    The books are:
    Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
    The Art Lover, by Carole Maso
    The Pesthouse, by Jim “out of a job” Crace
    Mayordomo, by Stanley Crawford
    Baby Leg, by Brian Evenson
    untitled, by Ken Sparling
    Dreams and Stones, by Magdelena Tulli

    They look kind of nice together, in a monochromatic way.

    1. That is a lovely little selection of beige books, in my opinion, and it’s size feels manageable to me – like a joke that you know a punchline is coming in the next paragraph or two – it’s easy to stand because you know it’ll be over soon.

  7. A friend of mine organizes hers by color. Looks great, but how in the world can she find anything? Would drive me nuts. I’m an alphabetizer.

  8. 10.000 books! now i am tempted to complete this post, and then go and count my books … which are sorted by 2 main categories: non-fiction / fiction. non-fiction is then sorted by theme, and fiction, by alphabet. which once lead to a forum question: “what to do with ‘Leon de Winter’. is he a D-author, or a W-author?” — the string of answers later turned into a blueprintreview-theme-page: “A to Z”, here the link:
    #3 is another colour-sorter. the logic of this system is: “I will often know what the book looks like, but not the author.”

    now, counting.

    1. Check the way the author name is listed on the copyright page/ how she’s listed in the library of congress, if you’re really worried about it.

      1. Also isn’t the rule: If it’s capitalized then that’s what to shelve it under. So Zippy van der Cook would be under ‘C,’ but Zippy Van Der Cook would be under ‘V’?

  9. the only organizational thing i used to do was put heavier books near the bottom and lighter books near the top. but i dont really do that anymore now either. i have too many books for my shelves, i cant organize based on any method other than shove it in where it fits. ive set up stacks on a nearby table now, but i either need to buy new shelves or get rid of books, the latter being lately more on my mind. since ive been using the library a lot lately, i find that i read books i dont own more vigorously and ive kind of resented the amount of books i own now that i feel will never be read by other people or even myself again. i may at some point start selling a lot of them or giving them away or something. garage sale.

  10. I organize mine by size, with the largest on the bottom. That’s only because I only have cardboard boxes as bookshelves–more like book pens than shelves–and need to build a solid base so the whole pile doesn’t come toppling on my wife when she’s doing yoga. We’ll get some shelves one of these days.

    Question for the group:

    We usually tend to be packrats with books, surrounding ourselves with words so either 1) they’ll seep into our our skull through the ether, or 2) we look smarter (my philosophy.) What percentage of your library have you actually read?

      1. Perhaps it’s because I’ve worked in bookstores for 4 years now, but the free galleys have grossly skewed the number of books on my shelf that I’ve not actually read – that and fundraiser book sales where you can get a stack of weird classics for a buck. I know I’ve read more than half of the books on my shelves, but I’d say it’s possible that I might not have read 60%. Isn’t that ghastly?

  11. In my bedroom, I have this bookshelf: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/ol-images/chicago/uploads/041807shelves.jpg

    It makes it pretty handy; I organize loosely by genre. All poetry books are in the middle two compartments, fiction on the left side, non-fiction/YA lit/cookbooks on the right (though recently we’ve moved cookbooks into a corner of the kitchen to make more room for some fiction overflow). Also, all chapbooks are shelved together on the top left, regardless of genre, just to save them from getting lost in the bustle of the wider-binded books.

    I also have a small shelf next to my desk in my office where I keep all my craft and criticism books.

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