I spent hours organizing my books until I realized it was a huge waste of time and changed my ways

How do you organize your books?

Is it in the author’s last name? Because of the height of the spine? By genre? By publisher? Or maybe they’re categorized by “read” and “unread,” then sub-categorized by genre, then by the author’s last name, then the era the books were published in, followed by the font on the spine?

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve tried all of these methods, because for most of my life I’ve been plagued by the desire to organize my books. A fun night for the 12 year old I sat under my bedroom ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars and flimsy purple dream catchers, agonizing how to order my Jacqueline Wilsons – for a while I had her books in order of how often I had them all reread – and where Wilson would sit in regards to the Malory Towers collection and Judith Kerr’s novels about World War II. Very different publishing eras, topics and title font usage, sure, but all 10/10 reads. You see the problem.

Things only got worse. When I left the house and moved into my first flat, I lost days sketching military-style diagrams to take on not the enemy, but the planks. 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, open-minded, mysterious and free from the prison of the zeitgeist, but also completely culturally plugged in.

This week, fashion designer Lady Natasha Rufus Isaacs said her husband strongly disapproved of her decision to show their books by the color of their sleeves. He asked her, “Why the hell are you turning our bookshelves into a rainbow? It looks really fake.” She replied, “Because it is beautiful.”

She’s not alone. Instagram and Pinterest are full of “shelfies,” images of stylishly organized shelves of people, a sight so pleasing it would make a poet cry.

Author Laura Pearson also arranges some of her books back home in the East Midlands by color, creating a literary rainbow. “Every time I enter the room, they bring me so much joy,” she tells me. “I know a lot of people organize alphabetically or want to keep authors together, but for me it’s the best way because it’s visually striking.”

Laura Pearson’s Rainbow Organized Books (Photo: Laura Pearson)

Copywriter and book lover Kjell Vandevyvere says he organizes his books by language first, as he has Dutch, English and Spanish books, then alphabetically. Sports books are kept separately. “I’ve spent a few days trying to sort them by color,” he says, “and I just don’t feel like it; how do i find books fast? But I did enjoy reorganizing them afterwards.”

A bookworm on Twitter suggested they could try organizing their books according to which characters should talk to each other; Frodo from Lord of the Rwe chat with Connell from Normal people, perhaps. There was also a 2018 trend for “backwards books”, which meant that they should be placed with their backs against the wall for a “neutral and minimalist” look.

Ideal home magazine was on the shelves of a lifestyle blogger named Lauren,” then-art editor Alice Jones reported, “who keeps the look neutral by stacking books backwards.” Pinterest has pages and pages of pins devoted to the blank, decidedly non-utilitarian look.

Then, of course, during the pandemic, as we zoomed from our sitting rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms, our bookshelves came under intense and unexpected scrutiny. David Cameron, it was noted, removed a Hitler biography from his shelves; either because he reread it, or maybe because people were afraid he was a fan rather than just interested in history.

My unplanned planks with the backs out… (Photo: Kasia Delgado)

I support those who want to organize their bookshelf in an artful way, but it can go too far. Before moving to a new flat this month, I had a dream where I was arranging my shelf for so long that each book started to disintegrate and I started to eat the pages. In the morning I decided enough was enough and I swore I would change my life.

As I unpacked my moving boxes, I forced myself to randomly place books on the shelves. I fought every instinct I had. I now have an Ali Smith novel on one shelf and another Ali Smith novel a few books down! I’m OK with the fact that I have Kill a mockingbird from 1960 right next to Sarah Moss Summer water from 2020. A non-fiction guide to British wildlife lives next door to JG Ballard, and I don’t feel stressed. There is a Penguin next to a Picador. A big book next to a small one. My shelves do not suggest that I am mysterious, independent of mind, or culturally astute. Still, I feel free and not plagued by the pursuit of bookshelf perfection.

Bookshelf buffs, enjoy your rainbows and alphabetical organization, but remember, if you ever find it haunting your dreams and also your waking life, I suggest you change your ways and let chaos build up in the bookshelf. Yes, it may take me longer to find a novel, but I’ve also regained some of the youth I lost by torturing myself about book heights and spine letters.

And, without all the arranging, I have more time to actually read those damn things.

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