how do you shelve?

Some people shelve their IMG_1455books by color. I wish I were that creative. Instead my books sit on the shelves in boring alphabetical order–by author’s last name. When I first organized them years ago, I tried not to squish them so I would have room to add more. Eventually, though, the shelves became full. Then I began to lay books horizontally across the place they should be. Every few years, I dust, add the horizontal books, and expand forward onto a new shelf.

Only books I’ve read go on the built-in shelves. The ones I haven’t yet read used to go on the floor, but now go on this very cool skinny bookshelf from Design Within Reach. It’s free-standing, and the books go on it horizontally. For a picture, look on my Reading List page. I tell myself I can’t buy any new books unless there’s a place to put them on this bookshelf, which currently holds 87 books and is full.

As I look around my study now, the horizontal spaces are almost full as well. It’s getting to be that time, but I’m running out of “new shelves.” So not only is it that time, it’s also time to weed/cull/purge.IMG_2093

Last November in The Well-Tended Bookshelf, Laura Miller wrote that there were “two general schools of thought on which books to keep”: you are what you’ve read or you are what you will read. Either way, the bookshelf serves as some sort of self-portrait. Anna Quindlen wrote, “The purse is the mirror of the soul.” Yes, so also is my bookshelf.

If only long ago, I had only kept books

  • that I wanted to reread
  • that were signed
  • that were special because of who gave them to me, and
  • for favorite authors only, all their books

Really? I ask myself. Maybe.

On Bibliobuffet, I found a link to a blog about bookshelves. Bibliobuffet also lists 17 organizations where you can send books you no longer need or want in your libraries. You can also exchange books on BookMooch.

How do you shelve? Do you keep all your books?

Bookmark and Share

40 thoughts on “how do you shelve?

  1. Even though I got an eye twitch looking at your un-color-coded bookshelf, I know that alphabetical is best. You’ll always be able to find what your looking for in seconds, rather than hours like I do.

    example: Recently on an agent blog, he recommended some books he’d read. I wrote them down since I may query him one day. Then I ordered them from the library. It wasn’t until I recieved them that I realized I already had them. I would have known that if my bookshleves were user-friendly.


    • Yes, the same thing happened to me a couple of years ago, but the book I rebought was stacked up on the back row on the floor under the desk where I kept all my to-be-read books–hence the new bookshelf.

      BTW, thanks for the inspiration on the shelving by color! Did you check out the cool links in the first sentence?


  2. Oh, my! If my bookshelves are the mirror of my soul I’d better take a closer look at what books I’ve kept.

    My fiction is in alphabetical order by author, with non-fiction sorted by topic. And I too have many books stored horizontally awaiting more shelf space.

    My budget is limited, so I usually “audition” new (to me) authors by library loan and then buy those I know I’ll want to read again. It’s hard for me to get rid of books, even those I didn’t like. I tend to think the fault was mine and I should read it again.


    • I never thought about sorting nonfiction by topic. I just threw them in there with the rest. Although now that I turn my head to the right, by my desk, I have a shelf for poetry and a separate shelf for books on writing craft.

      About getting rid of books you don’t like, you might be interested in my post “feeding the buzzards.” : )


  3. I always thought I had no order to my bookshelve whatsoever, but you made me realize this is not so! My books are organized by size. The heaviest textbooks are at the top, which makes no sense, but I suppose they’re up there because I do not reference them much anymore. I find myself buying fewer books in recent years for the reason that I would need a secondary house to keep all the books I read. Thank goodness for libraries!


    • I had to buy a ladder for my study because the A’s are on one of my top shelves and the H’s on the other one! I’m not sure if I’m buying fewer books, but I know I’m being more selective. I used to automatically buy the next book by an author I had enjoyed reading. Now I do a little more investigation.


  4. My shelves are loosely done by genre, and in no particular order in that division. I used to keep every single book I bought/owned, but my recent moves have forced me to let some go. It was a bit traumatic at first, but I only sold/gave away ones that I didn’t feel like represented me very well, whatever that means. And I haven’t missed them, so I guess it’s ok. 🙂


    • Erin, it’s nice to hear from you again! What are the different genres you have? I just realized a minute ago that I do separate out poetry and books on writing. And I gave away a book last week that’s been b o t h e r i n g me because I have the other books this author has written. I actually wondered last night if I was going to have to buy it again!

      “ones that I didn’t feel like represented me very well”–that is very interesting….I would love to hear more about that. It sounds a little like your books might also be “the mirror of your soul.”


      • Categories are pretty loose – fiction (which is further divided into silly and more respectable fiction), biography/memoir, classics, foodie/wine books (one of the biggest categories for me), and then reference.

        I ended up getting rid of books that I felt like didn’t really have any meaning, or that I didn’t learn anything from. I had a pretty large collection of Chick Lit – a lot of which I really love and connect with – but some of which were just badly written, so I got rid of some of those. Also, a few Grisham/Clancy-ish things, and a few books that I hadn’t read and knew that I wouldn’t. I have a weird problem with having books on my bookshelf that I haven’t actually read – it makes me feel like a poser.

        Ha ha – I hadn’t fully realized my bookshelf quirks until writing them out like this. 🙂


        • I love your fiction categories–silly and respectable! That’s great.

          I wanted to separate biography/memoir just like I do poetry, but so many of my favorite fiction writers are now writing memoirs as well and I wanted to keep all books by the same author together so there went that idea.

          I also considered separating classics from contemporary fiction, but then thought perhaps all that separated some of them was time…


          • On a side note – does anyone else LOVE the new trend towards memoirs of the last few years as much as I do? I can’t get enough of them. At least every third (maybe even more) book I’ve read for the last few years has been some sort of memoir.


            • I love memoirs, but with long as it takes to write a book, if a fiction writer I love writes a memoir, I have to wait that much longer for a new novel! Sounds like a good topic for a post : )


  5. If you ever feel the urge to delve thoroughly into this topic, I recommend (if you don’t already know it) Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf, a history and examination of the bookshelf as it developed in the Western world. There’s an entire appendix on different organizational principles of shelving!

    I’m a traditional author’s-last-name kind of girl, like you, with a separate to-be-read shelf. I also have separate sections for poetry (alphabetical by author’s last name), art books (alphabetical by artist or museum), instructional & reference books (not really organized at all, as I’m continually taking them out & putting them back), and nonfiction (alphabetical by title, since often I don’t immediately remember the author’s last name). My to-be-read shelf is nowhere near as cool as yours, though.


    • Thanks for the link and the great review of the book. My art books are stacked horizontally around my study and in other rooms. Now I want to gather them all and organize!


  6. My bookshelves are loosely arranged by subject–and I mean very loosely–they are a mess. I didn’t realize how disorganized they are until reading this post. Oh my…

    I can’t part with books without feeling like I’ve torn out an internal organ, unless I absolutely hated the book. My solution to this hoarding is to constantly lend books to friends. This way, my shelves stay manageable, and I know my little friends are safe with a trusted friend–they are just on “vacation.” Am I weird or what???


    • Well don’t feel bad. Isn’t mess associated with creativeness?

      And yes, it’s so hard to give a book away. I’ll hold it in my hand and think, am I ever going to read this again. Then I start turning the pages. Now I’m sitting down and reading a paragraph or two, and then I’m either putting the book back on the shelf or in my to reread pile!


  7. My books, by default, have arranged themselves emotionally. At one end there are piles of books that I love unconditionally and will never part with. And at the other end there is a pile of books dusted in guilt, the books that have moved from house to house, still unread….but which I feel I *should* read. One day I will have the courage to give them away. And in the middle is a wonderful haphazard jumble of everything else.

    I hadn’t noticed this until you asked, and now I am intrigued…


    • I love this, Lucy! Arranging your books emotionally–perhaps that should be my first step. Of course, then I would have to move to alphabetical order within the categories. Does this mean that if you have more than one book by an author, her books could be found in all three categories?


  8. I, too, separate my books between those I’ve read and those I haven’t yet. They’re stacked horizontally, two deep, in the order that I’ve read them, most recent on top. I like to look at my shelves and see what I’ve accomplished. -ae


  9. I wish I had such an organized system—I simply shelve mine, willy-nilly. I’m trying to get better about “releasing” books and trading them on Swaptree so I can eliminate some I doubt I’ll be reading again. It’s hard!


  10. I have two bookshelves, side by side, one with female authors, one male, each arranged alphabetically. I know this is very sexist of me, but that’s not how it’s meant, it’s just the way the books “called out” to be shelved. For the most part, books written by men and women are different, don’t you think? And I’m not talking about chick-lit, either, but high quality reads. I feel the tone–the vibration (if I can jump into my metaphysical self for a moment)–of a book written by a woman is different than that of a man. Not better, not worse. Just different. And some days, I’ll find myself being pulled over to my girls and others to my boys. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, I just go with the flow. And then from there, they’ll be a bit of a fight for my attention. I do find it a lot easier to get around my shelves, though. The boys have a little more space, but not by much, and if you count memoir, which is shelved in a different space, then it’s about even.


    • At first I was thinking to shelve by gender is wild and crazy or maybe the opposite of wild and crazy. Then something started seeming familiar about it. I’m wondering if a long time ago I did the same thing.

      “I feel the tone–the vibration (if I can jump into my metaphysical self for a moment)–of a book written by a woman is different than that of a man.”

      The more I think about this, the more intriguing it becomes. Do you separate the classics from contemporary fiction?

      Oh and a whole other calculation to make–I would imagine I have more books by female authors than male, but I’m not sure.

      All very interesting.


      • I don’t separate the classics from contemporary…for instance Regina McBride’s The Nature of Water and Air is right next to Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It’s interesting who sits next to who…and then when a new book comes in how it changes up the mix.


        • Your bookshelf seems like a very lively place, which is awesome!

          And I love a new perspective. I see now that when I reach for a book, I’m only looking at that book and not on the ones on either side. I will open my eyes wider.


  11. From page 593 of Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency:

    “I want it to look like a case of books from someone’s house.”

    “I suppose what you want is a shelf of books that people might have heard of, and some runs of authors, maybe? Something that looks as if–let’s say–something that looks as if the person who put it together might have had some interest in life.”


  12. Lovely, lovely essay by Nicki Leone in Bibliobuffet, “The Box of Books My Mother Sent Me.” Here’s the link:

    And here’s the last paragraph:

    “So that is what was in the box of books my mother sent me. Not just a box of books, but a touchstone to a series of shared experiences and conversations. The stories in the books are almost secondary to the stories of the books. I find myself unable to put them away—to put the art books with my art books, or the Elements of Style over with my reference and style books. No, I feel compelled to keep these six books together. They seem to belong together—a special section in my library called “books from my mother.” And so they remain stacked on my library table where they are a constant reminder and constant evidence of the way my mother and I speak to each other.”


  13. I file by size within topic. That probably makes no sense unless you could see a picture of my bookshelves, but it lets me have an attractive arrangement of my library and also lets me find any book I want in seconds without having to remember the exact title or author. If I’m looking for the field guide to dragonflies, I know it’s a medium-sized book on the bugs bookshelf. Works for me, not trying to push it on others, wish I could post a photo to illustrate.


  14. Brilliant! I love British newspapers, all of ’em. Even the bad ones are good. As the US newspaper industry winds down, maybe we can all take out a subscription to The Independent, The Guardian or The Times and stay enlightened.


Your turn...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.