5 Steps To Organize Your Books

Last week wifey asked to organize my books. I gladly agreed, as long as she promised not to "purge" any books without my permission. Everything was set. Then she told me she wanted to organize my books by color. That's what I get for marrying a painter.
This looks very cool. It does not jive with my
personal approach to library organizing.
This week I'll be organizing the library myself.

A little over a year ago we moved everyone in the house around, shuffle shuffle shuffle, in order to create a study room/library for the homeschooling children and for dad. We share. Mom gets her own studio space off-site.

When we shuffled my books were loosely organized, and a third of them stayed upstairs in the boys' room. This past weekend they knocked down my red cloth-bound volumes of The South In the Building of the Nation. Time to consolidate, time to organize.

I have had a substantial (not huge, just big enough to need organizing) library since I was fourteen, when I got a job at a used bookshop in Massachusetts and spent all my pay either on books or Ben & Jerry's ice cream. I still own many of those books. As I got older I shed some volumes and added more. Fifteen years after that first job, I opened, then closed, a used book shop. Much of my old collection went into the shop, much of my new library came out of it. At fifteen years of age my library was overwhelmingly concerned with military histories. As the years passed it became more literary, then more poetic, then more theological, then at last living-yet-nostalgic. Now it is all those things.

Here are the steps I go through during my periodic organizing spasms, spasms which you've probably experienced. I don't mind organizing again and again, as long as there's something to shoot for.  I relish the presence of entropy in my library, so how well your books stay organized is up to you.

This is an emotional system. Because of that, it must begin in a disciplined and clear-eyed manner.

1. Know thyself. Let's be honest. This is an age of easy book acquisition, in which books are not worth the same as, say, a cow. You might want to pass some books on to your kids, but not many. The main thing about your library is that it's a representation of yourself, both to the public and to you. Look over your library and ask how in line it is with who you've been, who you are, and who you want to be. Red wine, brown liquor, or black beer are appropriate to accompany this step, which should be performed on a day separate from the other steps. This will ensure an appropriate and decorous emotional detachment.

2. Purge! The following day you can walk into your library and begin the difficult second step. Be real: if you own more than one bookcase, you own more books than you can feel sentimentally attached to. Yes, there are a few books you'd never get rid of because they shaped your life so much, and there are the books you'd never cast out because they look so impressive when you have visitors. But that feeling of love and tenderness you get when you glance over your books isn't for individual books. It's for your library. Think of your library as a beautiful topiary, or a fruit tree. You must prune it for it to be healthy and vital. This library not only represents your past and present selves, but the self you wish to be. Let that guide you. You are not turning your back on these books, you are growing past them.

Be honest about how much room you have, how much you love the book, and how well it represents you and whatever phase of life you were in when you acquired it. Move on.

3. Love and your chair. Take the books you most love. I mean, really really love. You'll never get rid of them. You won't give them to your children except at the reading of your will. Not merely the books that changed your mind and shaped your life. The books you love, with no regard for age or topic.

Make sure there's a bookcase near your favorite chair. Place those books, no more than two shelfs' worth, at the right hand of that chair. Place a stand of some sort on the left hand of the chair, for your mug, your glass, your pipe stand and your tobacco. You have created the heart of your library.

4. Utility and your desk. There is, of course, already a bookcase by your desk. Either on your desk, or on the two shelves at hand level when you swivel in your chair, place the books you work with. If you study, or write, or blog, or plan garden layouts, put those books where you can reach them without getting out of your chair.

In my case we're looking at Spanish and Portuguese textbooks, children's books in those languages, Latin American poetry, hymnals, dictionaries. Whatever's useful to you.

You have created the mind of your library.

5. Whatevs, by section. Now, it's kind of whatever, but by section. I'll place all my literature generally on that side of the room, and my history generally on this side. My theology tomes are mostly near my desk, even though I never open them; they're there because they seem so workmanlike. My theology essais and apologias I place closer to my chair and tobacco. My poetry has its own corner, near the Love Section, because I love my entire poetry section with a burning love that equals the love I have for the entire rest of my library. And so on.

Only alphabetize if you're the sort of person who alphabetizes. You need to be able to walk in to your library and see yourself. If you're not the anal sort, an alphabetized library will only alienate you until time and habit muss it up a bit.

I don't want to ever organize to a point where I don't have to remember what a book looks like. I love that moment when I think, wasn't the dustjacket kind of yellow, with the title in big brown letters, books was about yea big... Half the time I'm completely wrong, the book was actually red and a completely different size. But that's why I have the sections. I still get the fun of scanning shelves and running my fingers along the tops of all the bindings on the shelf while I search.

There you have it, this is my system. It allows me some sentimentality without getting bogged down. Maybe you dig it, maybe you don't. Would love some comments on that, and on how you guys have approached your libraries.

Much love to you and your books.


  1. I have one of these 6-foot by 6-foot shelves (http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/00208646/#/80208652), stuffed completely full, double-deep, with the top totally full as well.

    We've done the organize-by-color thing before, and it actually worked fairly well. Made the "It was kind of yellow, right?" searching a bit easier, actually.

    1. Yeah, that was why in real life I didn't really mind the by color thing...but I like my way better.

  2. It's comforting to know I am not alone in loathing a world where proper private librarys are being destroyed by the "downloading" of blips of electronically lit words onto a device dependent on the lifespan of a battery. The building of a man's library is a thing of beauty. Great post sir


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