Skip to content

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and you will receive our stories in your inbox.

How to (not) organize books

Posted in Home & Decor

The birthday gift arrived at lunch, in the most unremarkable packaging, unloaded from my father’s trunk: a cardboard box so large it could have contained my skinny 12-year-old frame.

The motorbike I received a year later, upon finishing middle school, didn’t delight me half as much as that crate filled with books. So many books spanning so many genres: from Huck Finn to White Fang; from Pollyanna to Greek mythology; from Italian literary classics to Calvino’s fairy tales. Enough books to last me for a year – or so my dad hoped, probably sick and tired of being dragged to the bookstore every couple of weeks by his voracious daughter.

My life and my physical space have always been filled by books. Some of my most precious possessions are stacked in cardboard boxes in my mother’s garage, for my impossibility of lugging them around the world. Those I have had an almost symbiotic relationship with still follow me around from the early days: Fitzgerald’s complete works in a leather-bound volume of pages so thin to be almost transparent; my very first copy of War and Peace in four paperbacks; Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden that opened my eyes to a more contemporary literature.

Now I am having a reckoning of sorts with the volumes that have filled my shelves and my head, even if, a few years ago, long before the appearance of Marie Kondo, I made a pact with myself that, upon finishing every book, I would ask myself two questions:

  • did the book give me so much pleasure I was bound to open it again to look for specific passages?
  • was I likely to re-read it?

If the answer was no to both questions, the book had to find its way out of my house. By and large, I have stuck to the promise.

Nonetheless, physical books still find their way in because I cannot resist a used bookstore, especially when I travel, or because I participate in book exchanges or will pick up orphan books here and there that look interesting. The result is a jumble of book piles that represent what I still have to read and shelves everywhere filled beyond capacity.

books at oval stationThere is a method to my madness but I can’t claim it foolproof, especially if I am looking for something in a hurry. After a brief stint working in a bookstore, I adopted their conventional method of shelving: by subject.

Hence, I have a section for travel, one for health, one for yoga and so on and on but the rub is that the bulk of my collection is taken up by fiction and literature. And finding what I am looking for is akin to finding the way out of a maze – could it be in the living room’s bookcase, or my office? Maybe the guest room?

I read with a touch of envy a bevy of charming posts dedicated to color coordinating books and I flirt with the idea of doing the same but, as pleasing to the eye as it might be, it also requires a photographic memory of all the covers if I am ever to find anything again. Not likely.
I tried alphabetizing but, then again, once a shelf is full, the system requires too much rearranging.

Lately, I have been taking a more whimsical approach. I think of the authors, or the characters, and I wonder whose company they might enjoy, or, in other words, I free associate. Maya Angelou would no doubt love to spend some time with Toni Morrison but how about some Nabokov to her right, to remind him that misogyny is out of fashion?
The mysterious volume of Merseyside poems lord knows why I even bought and why I can’t part with can only be tolerated by McEwan’s precision and sense of humor. George Eliot can debate with Wharton and Primo Levi can delight in his survival in the face of Anna Karenina’s death. If Anna had met Primo, chances are she would have hopped on that train.

I am not sure this method will withstand the test of time nor my impulse searches but it’s been an exercise in reacquainting myself with books I hadn’t touched in a long time and in re-evaluating what has stayed with me over the passing of time. We can’t remember entire books but what we remember of each one is very revealing.

The Merseyside poems? I bought them long before I fell in love with a Liverpudlian, thirty years ago but, when I look at that volume, I now think of him. I couldn’t tell you much of the plot of The Naked and the Dead but, to this day, I know that Norman Mailer irritates me and I keep him around to remind me of that irritation. Corelli’s Mandolin is forever attached to Sue, who made me read it, even if the story now escapes me.

Whether we read to find bits of ourselves, to understand ourselves or the world better, to fill a void or a need, to learn or to escape or to live all those lives we will never have a chance to live, each book is also intertwined with phases in our lives and the people in them.

None of the easier to manage tomes in the cloud give me the same pleasure – it’s harder to associate them to the exact moment I decided on a download. Which is why my shelves will keep on shifting and changing as I perpetually rearrange them in search of the perfect system: touching my steadfast friends brings a satisfaction I cannot give up.

Do you have a method to keep your books neatly arranged? Or have you given in to the cloud?

Share on Facebook

10 Comments

  1. I like the sound of this new approach you’re taking with organising your books! I don’t really have a system – they kind of just go where they’ll fit – but I do tend to place my favourite books in more prominent places, and put the not-so-great ones or the yet-to-be-read ones neatly out of the way.
    I should probably use your approach to culling books from my collection, but I just have so much trouble letting go, even of the mediocre books.

    And I can definitely relate to what you said about the non-story-related things we remember about each book, especially since I get a lot of book recommendations from friends, and will tend to associate people with the books they’ve recommended. I suppose it’s a bit of insight into what the other person is like (because it’s likely a book that they loved) and insight, also, into how they perceive you (because they think you’ll like it too).

    September 27, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      If I put my still to read books neatly away I would never get to read them! So I pile them all around the house to remind me I still have to pick them up.

      September 28, 2016
      |Reply
  2. winstonmoreton
    winstonmoreton

    Nice meme. A friend of mine in a grotty student bed-sit shelved his massive book collection from ceiling to floor. Transformed it into a palace of colour and delight. And provided insulation from the cold

    September 27, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      If they kept out the infernal heat we are experiencing now, I would be game.

      September 28, 2016
      |Reply
  3. I have physical books and books in the cloud. The cloud books started in 2011 when I knew that I would be moving overseas within the next few years, and that’s also when I realized that I would have to cull many of the 1100 physical books I already owned. By June 2015 I had successfully got the physical books down to 420 (thanks to Marie Kondo) and the cloud books up to about 130. Since I settled in Australia I have bought about 30 more of each. I tend to buy most of the fiction on the cloud (or borrow it from the library) but I love buying my non-fiction in physical form – interesting books on travel, art or history that I find in odd, quirky places and enjoy dipping into as reference books or research for my novels.

    The physical books are easier to shelve because I group them by subject. I find it very annoying that there are only two ways of storing the books on my Kindle – alphabetical or chronological. I opted for the latter because I tend to remember them in the order in which I bought and read them.

    There is absolutely no way on earth that I could shelve my physical books by colour! I shudder every time I see a photograph where someone has done that, and I feel sure that none of those poor books ever get read…

    September 27, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Girl, that was a serious exercise in letting go!

      September 28, 2016
      |Reply
  4. Really inspiring your article. I keep the books that I really really like and think I would read again. The rest of them go with people who want to take a chance in reading it and to the library. I classify books by languages as I like to read in different languages.

    September 26, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I tend to read in two languages too, sometimes in French as well, and I keep those books separate too.

      September 28, 2016
      |Reply
  5. camparigirl
    camparigirl

    I do related. All my college texbooks are in my mother’s garage. I promised her next time I am there, I will sort them and get rid of them. At this point, so much time has gone by I can’t even sell them!

    September 26, 2016
    |Reply
  6. I absolutely have to have the printed book over something in the ‘cloud.’ That said (and like you), mine are organized by category (my jillions of foreign language materials, travel, political, homeopathic, gardening, etc.). Because I’ve finally come to grips with the space limitations in my studio, I’m off loading as much as I can, especially the fiction books once they’ve been read. It has been an absolute joy to have taken many of those to the office book exchange or deposit in the donation bin that I keep at the ready. I never believed I could find so much pleasure in culling books, believing I had to hold on them forever notwithstanding a number of text books I’ve held onto from when I was in college-baby steps, right? 😉

    September 26, 2016
    |Reply

Got some thoughts? We would love to hear what you think

%d bloggers like this: