Organizing My Bookshelves, Part 1
When I asked on Facebook for suggestions on organizing my home library, I was amused to find that multiple people suggested organizing the books by color. Now nobody is denying that a bookshelf organized by color is very pretty. But how do you find the books once you’ve organized them?
Maybe I just have too many books. When I got ready to do my organizing overhaul, I thought it might be fun to count. My off-the-cuff estimate was around 500. The grand total, though, after going through every room in the house, was 805 books. Not counting the 100-or-so library books in the house at any given moment.
I grew up in a house full of books, so after Tony and I were married, I didn’t really feel like I had a real home until we had at least one full bookshelf. I regularly haunt library book sales and the book section at thrift stores. I would love to have a whole dedicated room to serve as a library, but I have a feeling that the books would not stay inside it very well. Books tend to go wandering at our house. Sometimes I wonder if they’re up playing musical shelves during the night.
I have other reasons for collecting books than just my compulsive fetish for paper with words on it. I like having the books I’ve read at my fingertips, because you never know when you’ll need to look something up again. Some books, like art books, I collect for the pleasure of paging through them. Others, like all the guidebooks and travel memoirs, remind me of places I’ve been or places I want to go. But my ultimate reason/excuse for collecting books is that I homeschool my children, so it’s part of my job to create a rich learning environment. Which of course includes filling the house with books on all sorts of different subjects, to pique their interests and feed their intellectual passions.
On top of that, someday (preferably soon) we’ll be moving away again to a foreign country where we won’t have an English-language library at hand. So I have to madly fill my personal library in the meantime so it can compensate. Because even though it’s true I can get hundreds of thousands of books via Kindle and other digital means, I know from experience that all those books lining the walls of my parents’ house actually did get read by their children. So I don’t collect books indiscriminately. I mostly buy the ones I want my children to read, if not now, then in ten years.
I actually did consider employing the Dewey decimal system. But it just doesn’t represent all the relationships between books. What I really need is some kind of complex tag cloud. But for now, my physical books are limited to one location in space, so they’ve ended up categorized according to my own whimsical, intuitive, and sometimes haphazard system. Which doesn’t represent all the relationships between books either, but it’s mine, so I like it. If anyone has a really awesome system, I’d love to hear about it.
One of my favorite things to do in other people’s houses is to look at their books. I feel like it helps me get to know them. If that’s not something you do, the rest of this post probably won’t interest you much. But if it does, and if you were in my house, this is what you’d see . . .
Here’s the mostly literature bookcase, housed in the living room.
You’ll notice that the bookcase, while lovely, does not have adjustable shelves. This adds an extra dimension of challenge to book organizing, since the tall books must go on the top shelf. So here’s what you’ll find on the top left shelf: business, Tolkien, and a bit of miscellania.
Because it’s a double bookcase, there’s another top shelf to the right of this one. This is our Mormon shelf, with some Nibley, various manuals, and our Minerva Teichert-illustrated Book of Mormon.
On the next level we have my collection of individually bound pocket-sized Shakespeare plays. Why yes, I do envision my children someday brandishing one of these as they improvise a scene out of Macbeth.
Shakespeare continues to the right, and the golden monkey tidily separates him from the rest of my drama collection, although some displaced 19th century novels are stuck in between as well, pending finding more space for British literature.
Because I tend to think of everything in geographic terms, I have my novels organized more or less by the author’s nationality. So from left to right, Lebanese, Russian, South African, Irish, Canadian, and American.
American novels continue to the right, although they’ve been mostly eclipsed by Dickens, who was kicked off the English literature shelf because he was taking up most of it. In fact, my English and American literature is somewhat mixed up, partially because I originally had all the Anglo-Saxon stuff together and only recently tried to separate them out.
Next, we take a ride back to ancient Greece, where we find Homer and then the Greek philosophers, and then eventually philosophy in general. Also Gilgamesh, because he’s kind of ancient too, and where else would you put Gilgamesh?
Now British novels, although really, as you’ve seen, they’ve been spilling out all over the place. Also, some mis-filings I hadn’t caught. Hawthorne, Herman Wouk, and Chaim Potok have since been returned to their proper place.
Which brings us to the science fiction and fantasy shelf. Here you’ll find Patricia McKillip, my favorite contemporary fantasy author, along with some sci-fi classics like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Also a couple of versions of A Thousand and One Nights, although they should perhaps be moved to the fairy tales section. And Nietzsche is probably rolling over in his grave because the philosophy shelf above this one was too full, and he fell down into the science fiction.
Poetry! When my dad did a reading of some of his own poems at our family gathering last month, I was reminded that I come from a long line of poets and poetry-lovers. On the very far right, you can see a slim maroon volume with gold lettering. It’s called One Hundred and One Famous Poems, and was given to me by my grandparents on my 10th birthday. I still have many of those poems memorized.
We’ve reached The Bottom Shelf at last. Sorry it’s a bit blurry. I guess I was getting tired of taking pictures of bookshelves. This shelf holds essays and speeches, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh to Thomas Jefferson. It also holds one of only two literary works that ended up in duplicate when Tony and I merged our libraries (aka got married): Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. Our other duplicates were two entire sets of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings plus the Silmarillion. Tony’s were the deluxe slip-case edition pictured on the top. Mine were just one of a series of thrift store paperbacks that have since been read to death and replaced multiple times. I’m not sure what deep conclusions about us and our relationship you could draw from this. At any rate, neither of us is quite as radically committed to laissez-faire economics as we used to be . . .
And finally, the short stories. They ended up at the bottom of the bookshelf because I am not a huge fan of short stories. When I read one, I feel like I’m just reading until the punchline of a joke. And in the unlikely event that I actually happen to really like the story, it’s over almost before it begins. Also, I still sometimes can’t get out of bed to get a drink of water at night without turning on the light and still feeling generally terrified as a result of reading a Henry James anthology culminating in The Turn of the Screw while sick in bed three years ago in Ireland. But every rule has its exception, and the exception to my general dislike of short stories is “Repent Harlequin,” Said the Ticktockman. Which does not yet exist on my bookshelf.
I hope you enjoyed this riveting tour of my bookcase. Stay tuned for further exciting episodes. In the meantime, how do you organize your books?