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7 Ways To Organize Your Books (Other Than Alphabetically)

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Jessi Lewis

Staff Writer

Jessi Lewis has her MFA in fiction and an MA in Writing and Rhetoric. She was one of the founding editors of Cheat River Review and now works to bring her own fiction, poetry and essays to eyes each month.     Twitter: @jessiwrit

I just recently moved and like a lot of book lovers, the greatest boon of moving was my books that came along. There’s a surprisingly large box in the new house marked “Mostly Poetry” and cook books have now been scattered among travel nonfiction. It’s time again to arrange, reconfigure and kiss each cover as I go. So, I need to think my reorganization through.

Of course, you can always organize by alphabetization of author or title. You know– the normal way. Should this be our fall back? I find more and more that alphabetization is not going to work for me, and here’s another Rioter writer who agrees. I can’t maintain it. In fact, I’d rather eat my own hand. Other Rioters have let us in on their bookshelf look, and it seems like consistent organization for consistent readers is going to be a problem no matter what.

Most people end up down a different path: general subject. This is how I’ve worked in the past– the “Oh yes, that shelf holds fiction classics. That one contains all nonfiction by women” way. There is no rhyme or reason to this method beyond your own brain’s patterning, so there is a danger too. Can you make a shelf make sense? If someone else must also use your shelf space, can you make it work?

Other book lovers/interior designers have talked about color-organization. I get that this is a great Pinterest concept that was trending across the Internet for a while. Check out the example here from Matilda’s Shelf. Look at that thing. It is a beautiful option when done well. But, I can’t imagine trying to find a book of poetry in a large collection of color-coded books. Here’s an article from Slate saying that it’s worth the beauty to have the books be out of logical order. I am not convinced.


So the question is: How else can one organize home books?

  1. By height. I know. This sounds ridiculous, but especially for those out there with design and art books, height and depth of book binding can vary significantly. For poetry and plays, tiny seems to be the style. And, in certain realms (ahem..IKEA), book shelf dimensions don’t necessarily take into account the unusual sizes. Sometimes you’d love to organize your books by color, but that dang Tufte book from graduate school (The Visual Design of Quantitative Information) just won’t fit anywhere. And Nikky Finney’s book of poetry (The World Is Round) just keeps slipping away between the rest. Sometimes, it has to be by height.
  2. Old Dewey Decimal. In theory, if you are driven enough to categorize your books with Dewey’s system in your mind, then nothing will necessarily be lost. EVER. It has a speed that basic alphabetization doesn’t have, but a labeling system that can be rough on covers and rough on the mind. And, of course, an age-old system always has its downfalls.
  3. The seven basic plots. Remember these? Christopher Booker produced a book in 2004 aiming to clarify the primary plots of all books by dividing them into seven categories: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, etc. Check it out at The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. If you believe in Jungian theory could you organize your book life around it? I know some writers who aren’t fond of oversimplification of plot lines, so this might just seem wrong.
  • By readability. This is useful for those organizing books that will be used by multiple readers. Yes, it probably makes sense to put the kids books down low, the more adult travel up high, the young adult in between for all.
  • By most recently read. Can you make a timeline? Should I be ashamed that my The Grapes of Wrath would be dated back to high school, though I still claim it as a favorite? If one were to do this, then the TBR shelf would have its own unread universe waiting to be approached, while the older would be there with hopes to move to the front of the line. This shockingly would make more sense to me than one might think. And then there’s the question: How many of your read books could you get rid of and hand off to someone else?
  •  By most sentimental. Okay, so this seems inappropriate, but I wish I could do this. If I were to order my books based on emotional connection, then maybe I could get rid of the books that I am not connected to. There’s that short story collection I bought on a whim and couldn’t get into, the bookish gifts that never really made sense for me. Could this help to weed out my collection? Could I be freed of some of this weight if I let myself compare my loves?
  • By sheer favor. This is a dangerous one because this kind of judgment can be fraught with indecision. I could, however, see some devoted classics lovers getting into this. Sometimes we prefer the content of books rather than writing style and vice versa. Could you separate out the ones who balance out both– the books that qualify to you as works of art? And once you’ve done this, you can rate the rest in relation to your favorites. My fave? Probably The Grapes of Wrath (but there I go again).

    I have to really think about this as I begin to rearrange. What’s another way to do this? Or do you believe in book anarchy???