How do you order your bookshelves?

From colour coordinated to randomly stacked, there are many ways to order your bookshelves. How do you organise yours?

Books on a shelf to illustrate a blog post about how to order books on a bookshelf

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One of the many reasons I could never swap real books for a Kindle is that I love the way they look on a shelf. I grew up in a house with books in pretty much every room, and to me they make any space look cosy and welcoming. They represent an invitation to stay and sit down, relax, and lose yourself for a few hours and, really, what could be nicer? I love the way they are decorative yet orderly, aesthetically pleasing yet also highly functional – because a good collection of books will contain everything from absorbing facts and useful information to moving poetry, thrilling mysteries, heartbreaking reflections and thought-provoking dilemmas. A lifetime of education, enlightenment and entertainment right there.

While I can understand the appeal of jumbled books – all those unexpected surprises waiting to be discovered – I need to have my books in order. So, what’s the best way to do this?

The obvious thing to do is go down the bookshop route by dividing books into categories and then alphabetising them by author. But although they’d be easy to find, that system doesn’t take the content of the book into account so the order would still seem random and somewhat soulless to me. Subject categories would work for non-fiction, sure, but for fiction I would want to use a more meaningful arrangement.

You could do something more personal and put your favourite or most used books on easy-to-reach shelves, with less favoured titles high up or low down (or, you know, at the back for the most embarrassing ones). Or they could simply be placed in the order in which you read them, giving you a sort of story of your life in books – with books yet-to-be-read in a promise-filled section of their own.

There is also a design trend for ordering books by colour. This is an abomination of which we will speak no further. That said, I do like it when people style their bookshelves with personal bits and pieces – photographs, vases and bowls, weird little sculptures, plants… they can break up the lines and add an extra dose of individuality, which is always a good thing.

In fact I have an entirely different system to those above that I have to admit I find exceptionally satisfying. I put my novels in… wait for it… chronological order by date of the author’s birth. Wait, what? What kind of crazy system is this, you might ask. But if you love literature then it actually makes perfect sense. It allows you to see which books are contemporaneous with each other, thus putting them into a historical and literary context that can throw new light on their themes, ideas and possible interpretations, and offer new angles for analysis. (I suppose, strictly speaking, I should put each book into chronological order by publication date, but I like to keep each author’s work in one place – mixing them up would be far too distressing. And anyway, books aren’t always published as soon as they’ve been written.)

This sense of context can throw up all kinds of fascinating comparisons. George Eliot (born 1819), for instance, was a contemporary of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (born 1821) and “Middlemarch” and “Crime and Punishment” sit next to each other on my shelf – both concern money, moral dilemmas and internal struggles, but the stories and their settings could hardly be more different.

“The Lord of the Rings” (JRR Tolkien, 1892) and “Brave New World” (Aldous Huxley, 1894) were both born of the authors’ concern at the inexorable rise of technology and its capacity to put power and dominion into the hands of the few, ie, universal enforcement vs the individual’s right to shape his own life. But while Tolkien drew upon the folklore and legend of the past to craft a tale of a dark world of heavy industrial machinery vs the bucolic charm of green rolling hills and hobbit houses – a menacing, physical threat to the pure and innocent – Huxley imagined a dystopian future where faceless computers exert psychological control over a somewhat apathetic society. The books are so different and initially seem unrelated, yet they spring from the same well.

Thinking about authors in era-related groups can spark all kinds of interesting thought processes. For instance, if Sylvia Plath were still alive today she’d be the same age as Joan Didion and Toni Morrison. How fascinating to imagine what she might have written as a grande dame of literature in the 21st century.

I have to admit, I only include authors born before 1945 in my ordering – after that I classify books as contemporary and lump them in together. This is because a few decades of distance seem necessary to really appreciate a book in its historical context, and because most of those guys are still alive and still writing and the whole field of contemporary literature feels fluid and dynamic and resistant to too much orderliness. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself – let’s face it, it’s more likely down to laziness.

So, what do you think of this system? Would you order your bookshelves this way? Or do you think you’ve hit on a method that makes more sense to you?

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