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The Bookshelf Order

Posted on 16th February 2015 by Jonathan O'Brien
How do you arrange your own personal bookshelves? By alphabet? By size? By colour? And what do you do when you've run out of space? Jonathan O'Brien argues why the alphabet is clearly the only way, that the floor is a fine space for books and how people who arrange by colour need professional help.

I've spent most of my life arguing with people that ‘the floor’ is a valid storage space. Especially when it comes to books and, now that I live in a small London flat, people are finally conceding my point. It’s strange 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 like 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.

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Ceinwen Statter

I have one bookcase devoted to cookery books! View more

Ceinwen Statter
27th February 2015
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Nocturnal bibliophile

I have a completely different method of book storage, first and foremost are the books in the lounge on my bookshelves - these are the books which will be read within the next few months, they are in no particular order, not by colour (heaven forbid), not by genre or author nor by size or order of purchase, they are simply the ones which have grabbed my eye and earned a place on the shelves. Next are the ones in the drawer of my bed! These will occupy the lounge bookshelf once a space arises - again they are in a haphazard non-order. Then there are those in the bedside cabinet, then the ones on the chest of drawers! Each and everyone of these are yet to be read. There are a few select tomes which I've kept to re-read, but these have to be extraordinary books to earn this special favour (for example: To Kill a Mockingbird) and these are carefully stored and will only re-emerge if nothing else piques my interest on any given day.

I have yet to utilise the floor, mainly because I read so much that the books I have gradually find their way onto the lounge bookshelves before too long.

Once read many of books get passed on to others to enjoy, some are placed in the loving care of charity shops for many astute readers to read and return. A few that are perhaps passed their prime are recycled. One or two over the years have been thrown out simply because they were an affront to good literature (they know who they are!!). I don't suppose I will ever change this arrangement, it works well for me.

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Nocturnal bibliophile
23rd February 2015
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