How do you organise your books?

The problem of organising your books is owning them. If you love books you own lots of them. You acquire them, read them, and then put them – where? On a shelf, in a pile, and immediately you are confronted with the persistent problem of how to organise your collection. Even the most evangelical of kindlers surely has some books to organise, unless they have been completely ruthless. Kindles may be the answer to the problem in the future, but I am not a convert to Kindle yet. That’s a topic to come back to.

It’s the rule, in organising books. There is never enough shelf space, however many books you own.

If you have ever cohabited with another reader, the rule means you have had to take urgent action and someone disposed of their copies of Women in Love, To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. It can be a fraught time as you argue over the emotional value of your GCSE copy of Julius Caesar, or don’t want to part with the precise copy in which you encountered Atticus Finch. And remember, some people can’t bear to part with books under any circumstances. That’s another topic to come back to – recycling books.

When you move house books get put in boxes, and often left in boxes for weeks, months, even years. Two years ago I came across several boxes of books in my cellar that had been put there when I moved in 30 years before. I figured that if I hadn’t missed those books in 30 years I could send them on their way now. Anyway, see the rule. Not all of them have been recycled of course. Some of them snuck on the shelves (see method 2  below).

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Here are some methods for organising your book collection. I’ve already given you a clue about mine. Which is yours?

  1. The Librarian. Categories of books are grouped together: gardening, cookery, reference, poetry, travel books, biography, gifts from Aunty Doreen, fiction. Within the groups they are organised alphabetically by author.
  2. Willynilly. Wherever they fit (see the rule).
  3. Half and half. Some organisation for half of them, so that cookery books are in the kitchen, reference books by your computer and books by the same author pushed in together. Other half, as in Willynilly.
  4. Surprise. After some discussion about organising sheet music at choir I asked Yvonne, the alto sitting beside me, how she organised her books. ‘They’re art books,’ she told me, ‘and I keep them in the cupboard.’ Well there you are.
  5. Aesthetic. By colour. Very tasteful, but this method takes ages to arrange and books take even longer to be found. But that’s not the point (see method name). My nephew did actually arrange his collection by colour and it was enchanting (see photo for one I tried earlier; not exactly enchanting). But this method doesn’t solve the question – where would you put that gold covered copy of The Mirror Within by Anne Dickson?
  6. Other wild ways. Order of purchase. Height. Alphabetically by title. Stacked on their sides. Order of publication. Order of reading. On the stairs.

Go on. What do you do with yours?

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

12 Responses to How do you organise your books?

  1. Yvonne wrote this to me in an email:
    Anything ‘cultural’ , i.e.. on art, architecture, design (including fashion – just a few), cities (mainly London), ancient history, local history are in the cupboard, to keep them dust-free! There are also catalogues from ‘posh’ houses. They are grouped broadly in subject matter, but with some leaning towards size. We also keep some novels, biographies sand a few collections of letters (e.g. Betjamen). I say ‘we’ – this mean myself and my husband and I organise his with mine on a small set of shelves, where they are stored in alphabetical order of author or subject if a biography. I tend not to buy or keep many paperbacks. I also have a small collection of books on language and copy-editing-type subjects which love of these shelves for easy access.
    In one son’s room I arrange his books mainly in order of size and shape; in another’s in subject matter, similar to my cupboard, but also according to size, as necessary. In these cases sometimes there are stacks of books at the end of the shelf which act as bookends.
    I could go into a lot more detail…!
    See you at Choir.

    I emailed Yvonne with a draft of this post to check I could use what she told me.
    Love it Yvonne!

  2. Anna

    Moving 8 times in one decade left me with a harsh, practical relationship with books. I give them away. Even favourites. I keep a few representatives of my different interests over time (all of which are still part of me and who I am) music, art, marketing, gender studies – grouped together in selected corners of the house (loft included). Fiction is more transitory (when it is in residence it is roughly by author and whether it is mine or my partners – we dont share taste in books). I like library books so cant keep those. And have developed a recent fetish for hardbacks which are more pretentious I admit, when stacked on a shelf. But satisfying too. Blocks of colour and fonts in a well ordered row.

    P.s. I met Atticus Finch in a school copy of that text so is probably as good as any example of my communal relationship with books.

    • Caroline

      As someone who finds it hard to get rid of books I should remember your wise words, that the books have become part of me. I like hardbacks too, but have reduced buying of books by so much that these are rare new arrivals.
      Thanks for comments Anna. Come back and comment again soon.

  3. Lou

    Also the question of where to put the embarrassing collection of self-help books? At hand or back of wardrobe?

  4. Books have been colonising my living space for the past ??? (well, over 60) years. In piles by the bed, under the bed, by any chair–in fact, anywhere there happens to be a clear surface. Three years ago I had a fantastic floor to ceiling bookcase built along my narrow hallway. But it’s now fully occupied, with a very eclectic selection.
    Every few years I am determined to recycle my books to Oxfam or wherever I have the strength to carry them. Then I have a new interest, and it triggers something from a book I have read–I look on the shelves and in the piles–and realise it has been ‘de-cluttered’.
    End result? Amazon have made a fortune out of my need to replace the ‘de-cluttered’ books.
    It appears to be an inheritable trait–my daughter and one of my sons are the same–as are three of my grandchildren.
    But I love my books and their contents. They are part of my well-lived life and precious friends, for whatever mood I am in. They are faithful and always there for me at whatever hour of day or night.
    So I have learned to accept that books-and-me come as a package: Love me–love my books!

    • Caroline

      Hi Sue,
      loved the picture you conjour of a house with books on every surface, and with that bookcase you had built, up the wall as well. And your periodic attempts to recycle struck a chord.
      Have you ever done this: bought a book because you regretted having recycled it and got it home to discover it’s there all the time. I possess two copies of The Daughter of Time, and of The Girls of Slender Means, by this means. I’ll have to remember not to recycle both copies in my next visit to the charity shop.
      Thanks for your description.
      Caroline.

      • Hi Caroline,
        I guess having two copies of a book is annoying!
        My books are loosely organised by subject but it also depends on the height and depth of the shelf space (hence the piles of misfits).
        For example, my collection of old gardening and garden history books (ditto cookery) include some books from the 18th and 19th C that are much smaller than the recent (gifts received) books of Jamie Oliver–or even the evocative-of-an-era Elizabeth David [‘French Provincial Cooking’ etc] Penguin paperbacks of the 1960s. The same ‘problem’applies to travel books and maps–and nearly all my non-fiction books. Novels in paperback are a doddle to organise==by author, in my case.
        But the books I’ve re-bought tend to be non-fiction. At one point when quietly reading ‘The English Patient’, I had to scurry off to find my book of the frescoes of Piero della Francesca and Giotto. I had to go to the library to see the Giotto as I couldn’t justify the expense of replacing it. But it brought back rich memories of a wonderful visit to Padua.
        [That morning was an example of the ‘pottering’ we discussed yesterday–such a pleasure, especially with books awaiting re-discovery in the light of a new interest.]
        During a crisis a few years ago I was reminded of a phrase I had read –and used in an essay on suffering when studying medical anthropology in 1997. Veena Das, writing of women in India and Pakistan at the time of Partition, had observed that some became “containers of poisonous knowledge” with no means of expressing this. It was in a brilliant article, that I wished to read again with a new perspective.
        But if I kept all my books, there will be no room for me–or the grandchildren!
        So I suppose recycling books is a risk we must take, and be grateful we are giving someone else the chance of enjoying them.

        Incidentally, I do have a Kindle. First, I can increase the font size if I don’t have my glasses (!). and second, it is useful for taking several books when I’m travelling. But it’s just NOT the same as reading a book.
        Don’t know about you, but I subconsciously visualise the place on the page, and whereabouts it is in the book, when I’m reading. So, when I flick back through the book, I can find what I’m looking for. I can’t do this with a Kindle and it is VERY (yes, I did mean to use caps and shout this) frustrating. So, I still buy and shall continue to buy print books.

        • Marianne

          I try to group books at least so that the novels by the same author are together, but size of books and the shelves they fit on dictate a lot of the decisions. I would love to have them all in alphabetical order within their categories, but I think I will be looking forward to doing this task for a very long time!
          I have taken to Kindle, partly at least because all my shelves are full, but also because it saves carrying books on holiday, but like Sue I find reading on Kindle is not the same as reading a real book. I tend to read very fast and then have to go back and read the thing all over again if I want it to ‘stick’.

          • Caroline

            ‘My shelves are full’. I dont remember a time when my shelves weren’t full. I am interested in Kindle as a solution to that. I tried one this afternoon, but then went and bought three books. One is a present, and the others might get recycled when read.
            I hope you enjoy the organising of your books by alphabetic order when you are able get round to it. I think I prefer reading …
            This post has received more comments than any other. It’s a good topic.

  5. Jon

    I like the blog and I will send it on to my friends.

    I bought two books at an Oxfam shop recently, and discovered I’d read both of them previously, and then found them both at home.
    That’s what I call disorganised!

    • Caroline

      Hi Jon,
      you need a system that can cope with two books! Take the first two books back to Oxfam and buy them again in 2014.LOL

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