The deeply personal art of organizing your books

Let’s not argue about rainbows anymore, okay? I say. I to know that if you’re a person who deeply believes in the power of the alphabet, the books-by-color thing makes your fingers twitch. I was that person. I hated books-as-decorative, I screamed at the thought of all-the-books-backs-in, I shook my little head in judgment at rainbows flooding the bookstagram, it doesn’t matter that I practically jump out of a moving car to see a rainbow anywhere else.

But I also came to the fact that each of these choices is valid. And the same goes for all the other possible options.

When did you start worrying about how your books were stored on their shelves? When is it important? This desire cannot set in at a very young age. Picture books and early readers – and I say this as someone who cursed themselves by storing them in the children’s section of a bookstore – resist organization. They just don’t want to be sorted or categorized; you’re lucky if you can even read the author’s name on the tiny spine. They want to be pushed willy-nilly, where they will go, where they will stand. Or not. Upright, it turns out, is sometimes overrated. (Stacking your books horizontally so others will fit on the shelf is a perfectly respectable way to utilize space.)

I once admitted to trying to make my own library labeling system as a kid, a little Dewey decimal system that made no sense, involved no categories, and maybe wasn’t even alphabetical . It was an art, not a science, like all personal book systems. But even then, I wanted some form of organization, a way to decide where to put the Beverly Cleary and Lloyd Alexander and Ruth Chew and Katherine Paterson books that were my mainstays before I discovered my mother’s fantastic bookshelves.

These shelves were high, half out of reach and incomprehensible. The authors went together, I think. The Jo Claytons were side by side until I started pinching them, at least. This has always mattered to me: the authors, the series, the shelves like the others. But that only mattered insofar as I enjoyed looking at my mother’s books and seeing how many works by an author I had read. (The CJ Cherryh shelf was intimidating.)

But the books I read as an adult have been in order for a long time. By “in order” I mean alphabetically by author (and chronologically within a series), not sorted by genre, with only broad categorical sorting. Comics cannot accompany novels; the sizes are all wrong. YA books have their own space, as do mass markets.

We alphabet types can be tyrants. Part of it is just that if you have a certain type of brain, book literacy is soothing. Organizing them inside the simple, simple and easily understandable concept of the alphabet is a way to bring order – a kind of order – to the chaos of a mountain of books (i.e. say of a small part of life in all its chaos). It’s satisfying. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve offered to organize friends’ shelves.

But there’s also a reality that few alphabet lovers want to admit: arranging books alphabetically is its own kind of chaos. It’s subjecting your beloved stories to an arbitrary system that puts books next to each other when those books have absolutely nothing in common except that they are made up of printed pages that were once thoughts in a writer’s brain. What is Nalo Hopkinson doing next to Nick Hornby? (I kinda like Tamsyn Muir next to Haruki Murakami, though.) It can be even more random in my non-fiction, where Felicia Day and Joan Didion are side by side.

Once you truly accept the fictional chaos created by the alphabet, it’s hard to take a strong stand against any other organizing principle. Books designed with covers of the same color are more likely to have things (themes, moods, genres) in common than books grouped by the last name of their authors. Stories? Coming of age stories? Books you read in college? Why do not cluster them? Why not put a book next to another book that looks like it, put Angela Carter away where she can argue with the Grimms, let Lev Grossman buddy up with CS Lewis, or put every book you read in middle school on its own shelf? (I’m always tempted to put my books back in the order I read them – a High fidelity– notion that would probably end in tears and a tall glass of whisky.)

Your books are your books and you decide what to do with them. So why are we so horrified when other people don’t use our systems? BuzzFeed once lost his mind about people who store their books in the back. “Why do Internet users care so much about how other people organize their books? » Literary Hub asked.

There’s a different answer for each specific burst of shelf rage, but at the heart of it, I think, there’s something simple and personal and sometimes hard to say: because people care so much about their books , and because we can be really bad at remembering that another person’s choices have nothing to do with our own. Some of us are more sentimental than others; some identify more with fictional characters than others; some don’t know how to explain exactly how sometimes a book slips under our skin and seeps into our bones, but some books do just that. They are not just objects. It’s one more thing, like an unforgettable experience or someone you love, that makes you who you are.

And at the same time, they are mass-produced items that you can do whatever you want with them.

Rainbow books, books by size, books with spines, books that are all leather bound and ostentatious – they can all seem to be the result of looking at books as objects rather than stories, to value them for their exterior rather than for their interior. We’re not supposed to do that, are we? We’re not supposed to judge books – or people – by their covers. And if you’re the kind of person who grew up hiding in the library because your own cover wasn’t the right one, for whatever reason – if you’re one of them, like me, it might even be hard to want to consider books as aesthetic objects.

Books, however, are not people. They are designed, inside and out. They are story containers, not the stories themselves. And you can’t tell just by looking at someone’s shelves whether they’ve read and liked every book or even one of them, no matter how they’re laid out. You can only know that something in this book – the object or the story – spoke to them in a way that made them want to keep it.

If I could turn into any type of book organizer, it wouldn’t be a rainbow or a crafty person. It would be a person who delivers all over the house. Little shelves here and there, filled with beloved books and trinkets. A wall of bookshelves, perhaps, but also books in every room, books wherever they are, books on interesting shelves, and books leaning against the wall like a coffee table.

I can not do it. They must stay together. At the very least, the sections should stay together and the unread books in their own space. When my partner and I moved last year, we bought new storage for books: small modular boxes (which also, at least in theory, allow books to be moved without packing them). We covered a wall with them, thrilled to finally have A Book Wall. Hopefully, I thought there would be plenty of space for the books we have and the books we will have. Maybe even room for a plant.

It’s already crowded, books slid on top of others, some shelves simply refuse to hold any more. And in addition, we are already thinking about changing it.

Books are objects. These are paper, glue, covers and ink. They are also stories. An ebook is no less valuable because it can’t be placed on your shelf when you’re done with it. And a shelf that doesn’t make sense to you – whether it’s organized by rainbow or theme or personal chaos or timeline or “this one made me cry” or timeline or, devil, astrology or the fantastic beasts it contains – is just as valid as yours. It’s a shelf full of books. It’s good no matter what you do with it.

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

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