The Bookshelf Order

Jonathan O’Brien writes about how best to organise your personal bookshelves and finds himself getting confused and scared by people who think colour is an acceptable system…

I’ve spent most of my life arguing that the floor is a valid storage space, especially when it comes to books. Now that I live in a small London flat I’m glad to find that people are finally conceding my point. It’s alien to me that some people have enough space in their homes for more than one small bookcase. One of my biggest problem is deciding which books get to go on the actual shelves.

At the moment, only books I’ve actually read get the reward that is shelf space and even then they’ve got to be the best to reach such heights. I don’t want books I didn’t enjoy unfairly lording it over the room like Joffrey Baratheon. I want them cast to the ground and slapped in the face like Joffrey Baratheon.

There are perks to being on the bookshelf. Being shelved in order of alphabet and genre is the main one. Is there any other way to arrange your shelves? I’ve heard about people who arrange their books by colour. These people are clearly ill and need help. No, my books sit there, enslaved by the alphabet, easily found and noticed. Fiction first, then short story collections, biographies, sport and more crossword books than I’d care to admit. They get order, a recognisable system. Not like those on the floor, scattered and unread, the escalator Metros of my room.


Next to the bed, the ‘to read’ pile. Fifty books strong and growing fast. I’m concerned that one day I’ll wake up and find them covering my bed crying, “Read us! You promised to read us!” There’s no order, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. An orgy of styles and ideas all vying for my attention. I go to bed hoping that somehow they’ll whisper to me in my sleep. That I’ll awake as well-read as I like to pretend I am.

By the computer desk, on the floor, the “have read” pile. The books that simply weren’t good enough to make it onto the bookshelf. Cast aside and ignored, they spend their days wondering what they did to deserve such abandonment. “You were good books,” I say. “But you are no Borges.” At least they aren’t in the wardrobe.

The poor wardrobe books. Schroedinger’s books. Revealed only to show off the extent of my library whenever I think it may impress a woman who knows that John Waters quote. But I don’t let them get too close in case they realise how embarrassing most of them are. Like going home with someone and finding out they’ve got an extensive collection of Enya records.

There’s an honesty needed with a good bookshelf. The ability to arrange your books for yourself rather than for the eyes of an ideal stranger. I used to arrange my books in case the Billy Liar version of Julie Christie came round. We could have been so happy together. Her with her sense of adventure and me proving that I’d read some books by Franz Kafka. One day…

But nowadays I don’t bother organising my books for people I’ve made up or thought about too much as a teenager. A bookshelf is a personal thing and it must reflect the mind and tastes of the person it belongs to. Especially because, if they arrange them by colour, you’ll know to get out. Get out fast before it’s too late.


A modified version of this post originally appeared on the Windmill Books blog

6 thoughts on “The Bookshelf Order

  1. This is a difficult one. A book that you can’t do without will be dog-eared and looked like it has been abused. Yet it has been loved and the fact it is in such poor condition shows how important it is.

  2. The floor?? Goodness, I feel like crying when I think of my books on the floor. Bookshelves are a must. When space is an issue, they can replace nonessential furniture, like sofa and chairs/dining tables/anything else ever.

  3. Pingback: Bookshelf Tour – mal anders! | bed, book & tea

  4. Until I get a house. Mine are neatly stacked in stackable boxes. When I get my house my father will be making me a bookshelf and the first thing going on it my terry pratchett collection. :)

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