Twelve Ways to Organize a Bookshelf

Photo credit: franks anger

My wife and I are in the process of moving. This means that, while she is engaged in productive and worthwhile activities like organizing the pantry and securing one of those baby gates at the top of the stairs, I’ll be busily about one of my favorite nerdy avocations: arranging books.

There are countless wonderful ways in which you can arrange books on your bookshelves. Beyond this modest list, I am open to reader suggestions. If I like your suggestion, I’ll arrange my shelves accordingly and invite you over so that you can see your handiwork.

  1. You can arrange them by genre. In the heady days of my youth, this was my approach. There was a section for novels, one for short stories, one for theatre, one for memoir, etc. Each genre was arranged alphabetically by author. This seems a bit obvious.
  2. You can arrange books by historical period/literary movement. The great 19th century Russians can lead into the Euro-American modernists of the early-mid 20th century, into the great post-war literary upheaval, into the postmodernists. But this stumbles both in its inability to account for the various branches of the literary tradition and in its placement of writers who, like Georg Büchner or William Maxwell, do not fit easily within a given literary milieu.
  3. You can, alternately, abandon any such universal organizational apparatuses and see the whole of literary history as a long, winding sequence that points inevitably to you and your writing. (Isn’t this how we normally see literature?) In my case, the focus is on the realistic novel, so my shelves might begin with Cervantes, spend the 19th century in Russia (happily skipping the American Romantics, Austen, Dickens, various Brontës, and other stuff I’m not really that interested in), return to Western Europe and America at the turn of the 20th century, spend some time in the South, then go global, and culminate (of course) in my thesis. While this may be solipsistic and historically flippant, at least it’s honest.
  4. Or, if you’re too cool for all of this, you could arrange your shelves to appear as though they have no logical arrangement. The implication here is that you have better things to do with your time than arranging bookshelves and/or devising clever ways in which to do so. Of course, this is ludicrous. It is the bookshelf-arranging equivalent of that hairdo from the early-aughts where a guy would put product in his hair in just such a way as to make it appear that he didn’t bother much with his hair.
  5. You could organize the books in order to create an overall aesthetic impression. For instance, you could group according to spine color or size, or arrange the books graphically and, thus, create a literary mosaic of sorts. This is an interesting potential variation—and does have a certain appeal—but is only really feasible in circumstances in which the books are not actually intended to be read.
  6. If self-expression is the goal, you could think of your bookshelf as a memoir, tracing your personal history as a reader.
  7. Alternately, you could think of your bookshelf as a mirror and group the books by author and rank them according to how closely the author resembles you (physically and/or artistically).
  8. You could finally get around to making that list of lists: the greatest literary hits of all time, the best books ever (that you own), in descending order, as determined and curated by you. You could charge for admission.
  9. But maybe this is too much, trying too hard to scrape meaning out of what is so obviously chaos. So you could cut to the chase (since all literature is commercial anyway) and sort by ISBN.
  10. Or you could group by publisher and rank, in descending order, according to which publisher publishes the greatest volume of really crappy books
  11. If all this makes you feel a little like you should have majored in psychology instead, so that you could figure out what disorder leads a person to arrange and rearrange their bookshelves as if it actually mattered, you could take that as a lesson and sort according to the level of emotional duress that the author underwent in order to attain his/her position of relative prominence in literary history (i.e., all literary suicides would rank near the top, dead white guys who actually got rich off of their writing near the bottom, Leo Tolstoy somewhere near the middle since he seemed a little happy (see the last chapter of Anna Karenina) and a little nuts (see the whole dying alone in a train station bit)).
  12. Alternately, you could recycle all physical books and buy a Kindle.



  • Sarah Frey says:

    I am for the aesthetic impression. Then again I don’t think I’ve even read all the books I have, I just think they are pretty. Haha

  • tanya debuff wallette says:

    I like #6 and #7. What a cool idea to arrange in a sort of personal growth timeline. Very nice. :) I don’t have enough shelves, but the one I do have is organized thusly: Books I haven’t read go on one shelf. That’s pretty much it.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      I have a friend with a pretty impressive library. When someone comes in and, in literary awe, says something like, “Have you read all of these?”, he says, “Some of them twice.” I keep waiting for someone to ask me that question so I can use his response.

  • Cynthia Frey says:

    Since you have a baby in the house and a wife who is a great housekeeper, I’m betting that’s not your fan and that Mr. Anger didn’t take that picture at your new home.

  • carol frey says:

    These are all great ideas. But for me, I feel a sense of pride with off the floor and onto the shelf; organization optional.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    I love this.
    #4 is hilarious because it’s oh-so-true!
    And I always go by #6… since they’re like my children I of course have a “favorite” area of my bookshelf.

  • Monet says:

    I’m totally the person who doesn’t care about the order BUT when I came to Spoknae for my MFA I made sure to put all my trashy romance novels on the top shelf because, I snarked, it send those hoity-toity writers in a tizzy. It’s only happened once or twice though.

  • Amaris Amaris says:

    I tried to organize mine by Dewey Decimal once. It was a total mess and I couldn’t find anything, despite several years of working in a public library. All of the Latin American history books, for instance, got split up into the 100s, 800s, and 900s, with one lone book stuck in 647 because it dealt with food… I thought that they should be together and organized by country.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Love this idea–but doesn’t the DD system group all fiction together under author’s last name? I fear that my rather one-sided collection would do this otherwise dandy system an injustice. And Daniell doesn’t let me fool with the organization of her books about not-made-up stuff.

      • Amaris Amaris says:

        Actually, it doesn’t group all of the fiction together, which was part of the problem. Some of it would be in the 800s with literature, and some of it would randomly be interspersed with other groups. Same problem with poetry. I’m guessing that Daniell’s books would mostly be in the 100s and 200s (she’s like a theologian, right?), which would make them seem more prominent, being the first books on the shelves and all…

        • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

          We clearly can’t have her stuff seem more prominent. (And, yes, theology).

          This fiction/poetry-scattering probably explains some of my befuddlement while wandering the stacks of the various institutions of higher ed with which I’ve been associated.

  • Nicole Hardina says:

    Clearly poetry must be separated from the rest….wait, is that a work of fiction on my poetry shelf? Yes it is. Heavy books on the bottom. Books yet to read go front and center so they can stare you in the face and shame you. Reference shouldn’t touch anything else. Oh man, my bookshelf is a mess. Not unlike my brain.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      I usually do separate poetry, but unfortunately my collection is so paltry that it doesn’t make that much difference one way or the other. Also, I like the shame-as-organizing-principle idea.

  • geneva says:

    I separate everything by genre, and then by color and size. I do have to say my poetry shelf is the most interesting to look at, because poetry books, more often than prose, are oddly shaped.

    I’m a visual person.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      I recently got a copy of Tinkers and was super-excited that it was printed in an alternative format. This–along with the fact that I noticed the slightly altered format at all–kind of weirded Daniell out.

  • Marcus says:

    Sort the books by author’s age at publication. This will allow you to forever keep track of just what a miserable slacker you are in comparison and just how little your life has amounted to, artistically.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Awesome. This is clearly the most depressing of all possible options. I would totally do this if it weren’t for all the research it would require.

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