How do you organise your books?
Is it by the author’s last name? By the height of the spine? By genre? By publisher? Or perhaps they’re categorised by “read” and “unread”, then divided by sub-categories of genre, then by the writer’s surname, and then the era the books were published followed by the font style of the spine?
I am ashamed to say I have tried all these methods, because for most of my life I have been afflicted by the desire to arrange my books. A fun evening for 12-year-old me was sitting beneath my bedroom ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars and flimsy purple dream catchers, agonising how to order my Jacqueline Wilsons – for a while I had her books in order of how many times I’d reread each one – and where Wilson would sit in relation to the Malory Towers collection and Judith Kerr’s novels about the Second World War. Very different publishing eras, topics and use of title font, naturally, but all 10/10 reads. You can see the problem.
Things only got worse. When I left home and moved into my first flat, I lost days to sketching military-style diagrams for tackling, not the enemy, but the shelves. I needed my books arranged in a fun, useful but also aesthetically breathtaking way, which would also suggest to the casual visitor that I was intellectual, broad-minded, mysterious and free from the prison of the Zeitgeist, yet also totally culturally plugged in.
This week, fashion designer Lady Natasha Rufus Isaacs said that her husband strongly disapproved of her decision to display their books by the colour of their sleeves. He asked her: “Why on earth are you turning our bookshelves into a rainbow? It looks really naff.” She replied: “Because it’s pretty.”
She’s not alone. Instagram and Pinterest are full of “shelfies”, images of people’s stylishly organised shelves, a sight so pleasing it would make a poet weep.
Author Laura Pearson also arranges some of her books at home in the East Midlands by colour, achieving a literary rainbow. “They bring me so much joy every time I go into the room,” she tells me. “I know a lot of people go for alphabetical organising or want to keep authors together but, for me, this is the best way because of how visually striking it is.”
Copywriter and book-lover Kjell Vandevyvere says he organises his books first by language as he has Dutch, English and Spanish books, and then alphabetically. Sports books are kept separate. “For a few days, I tried organising them by colour,” he says, “and it just doesn’t make sense to me; how am I supposed to find books quickly? But I did get the joy of reorganising them again afterwards.”
One bookworm on Twitter suggested that they might try to arrange their books according to which characters should be talking to each other; Frodo from Lord of the Rings having a chat with Connell from Normal People, perhaps. There was also a 2018 trend for “backwards books”, which meant placing them with their spines against the wall for a “neutral and minimalist” look.
“Ideal Home magazine featured the shelves of a lifestyle blogger called Lauren” reported i’s arts editor Alice Jones at the time, “who ‘keeps the look neutral by stacking books back to front’. On Pinterest there are pages and pages of pins dedicated to the blank, decidedly non-utilitarian look.”
Then, of course, in the pandemic as we Zoomed from our sitting rooms and kitchens and bedrooms, our bookshelves were under intense, unexpected scrutiny. David Cameron, it was noted, removed a Hitler biography from his shelves; either because he was rereading it or perhaps worried people may think he was a fan rather than simply interested in history.
I support those who want to arrange their bookshelves in artful ways, but it can go too far. I had a dream before moving to a new flat this month in which I was arranging my shelf for so long that each book began disintegrating and I started to eat the pages. In the morning, I decided enough was enough and I vowed to change my ways.
As I unpacked my moving boxes, I forced myself to put books on the shelves arbitrarily. I fought every instinct I had. I now have an Ali Smith novel on one shelf, and another Ali Smith novel a few books away! I’m OK with the fact I have To Kill a Mockingbird from 1960 right next to Sarah Moss’s Summerwater from 2020. A nonfiction guide to British wildlife lives next to JG Ballard, and I don’t feel stressed. There’s a Penguin next to a Picador. A tall book next to a tiny one. My shelves don’t suggest I’m mysterious, independent-minded, or culturally astute. Yet I feel free and unplagued by the pursuit of bookshelf perfection.
Bookshelf fiddlers, enjoy your rainbows and alphabetical organisation, but remember, if you ever find it stalks your dreams and also your waking life, I advise you to change your ways and let bookshelf chaos ensue. Yes, it might take me longer to find a novel now, but I have also clawed back some of the youth I lost to torturing myself over book heights and spine fonts.
And, without all the arranging, I have more time to actually read the damn things.