“By author, by color, by genre, or by Want to Read versus Read. How are your bookshelves currently organized?” – @Goodreads on Twitter
I, of course, have spent considerable time organizing and thinking about how to organize my books, just like everyone – or at least everyone with books; people without books can’t, by definition, organize their books, though they can organize other things: brooms, springform pans, political uprisings. But me, it’s all about books.
And organizing books, as I’ve said. It defines me as a person. Sometimes I’ll buy a book just so I can organize it, knowing full well that I will never read it, but feeling the deep, penetrating satisfaction of finding a home for said book on a shelf between Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch and Goldilocks and the Three Birds, if, of course, my books are organized by titles with bird species in them and the book in question is Goldfish Are Nothing Like Eagles by Jonathan Franzepan.
But how prosaic, the alphabetical method! Alphabetically is the sorting method of every Dick, Harry and Tom and does nothing to capture the idiosyncrasies of you, your bookshelves and the concerted efforts of major publishing houses and their lavishly paid publicists.
When I first began organizing my books, I chose the much-cherished Cherished Method, sorting my books from most to least favourite. Most favourite was Read It to Me Over and Over, Mommy! and least favourite was My Big Book of Gangrene. I was five, and those were my only two books, so the choice was relatively easy, though never underestimate the drama of a good gangrene anecdote!
As I accumulated more books from dear aunties, jumble sales and people who threw books at me, it became more problematic organizing my collection by how beloved they were. There is simply no way to determine one’s preference between, say, The Hardy Boys and the Curious Cushion Stain and Are You There, God? Because It’s Awfully Quiet in There.
But even at the tender age of 32, I knew that it was paramount to find a method of organizing my books, which would lead to purpose in my life, which would lead to asking strangers, “Hey, want to hear about how I organize my books?”
Fine, I’ll tell you.
In a fit of hyper-structuralism brought on by accidentally ingesting a New York Times Sunday crossword, I at first organized my bookshelves from thinnest to thickest, starting with The Collected Love Songs of Richard Nixon and ending with Infinite Jest II: Here Come More Footnotes!
But soon this disgusted me, like a full-colour photo of a frost-bitten foot. In a fit of passion or possibly indigestion, I wildly tore all the books from my shelves onto the floor!
After apologizing to the neighbours in the apartment below, I set about with a new organizing method (the Pile of Books on the Floor Method immediately proving unsatisfying and difficult to navigate).
For a while, I found spiritual meaning in organizing my books by the cuteness of the author’s jacket photo, but over time I became disillusioned, particularly when I realized that Bill Bryson remained among the pantheon of literary cutie pies solely because his photo had not changed in 27 years. What next? Those authors holding their head up with their fist aren’t actually fatigued?
I found solace in sorting my books by colour, not in the order of the spectrum but inserted in the shelves in such a way that, if you stood back and squinted and really used your imagination, the spines looked exactly like Dolly Parton receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. Or possibly a topographic map of the Soviet Union.
It was pleasing to the eye, despite the accompanying dizzy spells, yet I still found myself not entirely fulfilled in any real book-organizing sense. Thus, over a period of 78 sleepless hours, I sorted the books on my shelves according to their sales price (used) on Amazon. I also ordered the box set of “Hogan’s Heroes” 17 times during this period, though I have no recollection of doing so.
And then, an epiphany: who am I sorting these books for? For me? No. I keep my books on display for others! To impress friends and trick-or-treaters with how many books I have acquired (except the James Patterson novels; those just regularly appear on their own) and consequently how highly enlightened I am, how spiritual, how practically I fill the empty void of my life!
It doesn’t matter how my books are organized but where! Inspired, I tore out my bookshelves and rebuilt them… outside my house! Behold, ye masses, my books!
Also: please stop stealing my books. Thank you.
I wish I had the space for more books…and then I would find a way to organize them probably by type. And size within type.
Ha! Good one!
I always learn a lot from your articles, and this one is stuffed with good tips. Externalizing our literary pretensions is brilliant. Possibly a bit damp-ish, but brilliant.
But you mightn’t have given up stacking so easily, if you had a copy of “Floor It! The Golden Guide to Avoiding Furniture & Carpentry.” Kind of a graphic novel, done by former IKEA cartoonists gone rogue. I learned to sort by function: Motivational/forced on me by well-meaning friend = trivet & crumb-catcher under toaster. (They’re not flammable. I’ve tried.) Grishams with permanent Red Tart Cherry Jelly on covers = a very stable stack to prop up a sagging architect lamp. “Critique de la raison dialectique” (which I purchased under the misapprehension it was a cookbook about raisins) or any book printed in France = papier très absorbant/keep in bathroom as emergency backup supply. “Behind the Scenes at Stalag 13” = home defense (a) open to photo of Richard Dawson, snap shut on recalcitrant spiders (b) if spider is really big, throw book, move.
I’m adding all of these to my Masochistic Must-Reads immediately!
I also tried using the guide that came with my refrigerator. You sort your books by Good Ol’ Red Meat, Kinda Cheesy, Author in Vegetative State, Genome Editing/CRISPR drawer, Hogan’s Heroes/Sandwich Shelf, Time Management/Playing Ketchup, etc. But I ran out of room for my condiment collection, and took them all back out again.
Yes, but all lesser, I can’t imagine I’ll read a funnier piece on the topic.
Sort books? 😮But that robs you of surprises! Just stack them as they come on piles and every other year go through your piles and see which treasures you’ve amassed!
You should see the rest of my house…
Maybe next time I am around your neck of the woods. Not that I ever was in Canada🇨🇦😉
Wouldn’t I have to have a house first? I live in rented accomodations. Sorry.
I’m cool with that; you haven’t seen my house.
I’ve reached a new low (high?). I’m playing Skyrim. There are tons of books in the game. I have been obsessively sorting virtual books in a virtual space, for hours. You don’t even get to level up by book sorting.
What a time to be alive.
Charming. It never occurred to me that book-sorting could be so creative. I’ve quit acquiring them because they are overflowing the shelves. My latest ambition is to read all of them, including some college texts I never read in college.
My secret weapon: the library
“…and least favourite was My Big Book of Gangrene. I was five, and those were my only two books…” PRICELESS 😂 also “…I found solace in sorting my books by colour, not in the order of the spectrum but inserted in the shelves in such a way that…” 😂😂 Thanks for the lols and bookporn Ross, you have some skillz 📚👌
Off to Google “bookporn”
No need to cast that wide of a net (muhahaha), just enter it as a hashtag search in instagram. 😁 but be forewarned, it is terribly addictive and may increase your future organizational challenges 😉
my system is to pile them this way and that and hope they don’t fall onto the floor
But the one that lands on top, that determines which you read!
Spot on, ross. Natural selection.
Wish had enough time to do so
There are no wrong ways, it turns out.
There are three principal methods of book sorting in my house: books on my phone – sorted in the order to the last forgotten to keep reading. Not children’s paper books – whatever fit on what shelf order. Children’s books are sorted by wherever it last fell on a horizontal surface, with occasional books that could be found in multiple rooms at once.
That’s almost a list.
Honestly, I give more thought to sorting any of my lists than sorting my books.
Wow. I didn’t know I was supposed to organize them. I thought the shelves were to keep them off the floor so I would quit tripping on them.
Whatever works, man.