The Right Way to Organise a Bookshelf by Jemimah Halbert Brewster

Part One of my 2019 TBR shelf, alphabetised by author’s first name

One of the greatest joys in life is organising and re-organising one’s book collection. The heady rush of excitement when you think of a new system that you can spend a whole weekend applying to every book; the joy as you take each volume off the shelf, fondle it, smell it, and re-order it into your flawless new system. When you come home with a new book and work out the absolute perfect place to put it, even if that means re-organising the whole system you already had. Or finishing a book, particularly the last in a series, and placing it on the shelf beside its brothers and sisters and sighing in satisfaction that you have achieved something wholly good and right in this world.

Oh come on, you didn’t really think I’d tell you a ‘right’ way to organise a bookshelf did you? There is no ‘right’ way, there are only ‘some’ ways, which is why it’s so fun to periodically re-order and re-arrange. Let’s explore the systems I’ve tried, the ones that did not work, and the ones that seem like a terrible idea but would look lovely on the ‘gram.

  1. Alphabetical by surname

Simple, effective, but somehow not the easiest way to find things. I own quite a few comics, picture books, plays, poetry, and dictionaries, and they just look so weird all next to each other! Not to mention that ordering by surname leaves you with the problem of anthologies, collections, and works without a clear author, like a dictionary, thesaurus, reference work, etc. You can of course order them by organisation, e.g. Oxford, Roget’s, Webster’s, but even that doesn’t feel right. Plus, and this is much more important: it’s such a boring and predictable system. I like being the only person who understands how my books are ordered. Mine.

  1. Setting of the story

There was a brief, difficult time when I ordered my fiction books by their setting, roughly as: real-world, magical realist, fantasy, outer-space, apocalypse, world-within-a-world, etc. But then I had series like The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter which is set in the real world but across multiple dimensions (plus I hadn’t read it at the time and wasn’t sure how the world-building worked). And, most importantly, the setting of a work isn’t always clear or it’s not enough of a feature to be memorable = I couldn’t find anything when I wanted it. I had foiled myself by over-complicating things.

  1. Alphabetical by first name

More satisfying than alphabetical by surname and this produced some pleasing side-effects such as Jackie French, John Marsden, and J. K. Rowling all near each other. Bliss. However, following this system to the letter (ha) throws up the same problems as alphabetical by surname; dictionaries and reference works are hard to place and look weird wherever they end up. Thus the development of system 4:

  1. Fiction and non-fiction, then alphabetical

Much more pleasing. I can actually find things, and non-fiction ends up all together where it belongs. But then two more problems: poetry, biography, dictionaries, reference books and companion works all end up jumbled together in a most un-pleasing manner and books that I’ve read and enjoyed but have no intention of reading again soon (but absolutely cannot get rid of) are mixed in with books that I want to read in the near-ish future but aren’t yet on the immediate TBR list. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

  1. Fiction and non-fiction with sub-categories, then: when I plan to read them, then: alphabetical by first name

That is correct: I order my books in a very specific non-order that makes sense but requires a lot of explaining. My favourite kind of system: mystifying—but it works. My bookshelves currently look something like this:

  • A special shelf for this year’s TBR
  • Then the rest ordered by fiction and non-fiction
  • Then non-fiction is ordered into sub-categories such as: poetry, feminist reference/poetry/non-fiction, celebrity biography, theology, companion works (The TARDIS Handbook; The Adventure Time Encyclopaedia; Bogus to Bubbly), and dictionaries and reference works (such as The Element Encyclopaedia of Magical Creatures and Best Loved Folk Tales of the World)
  • Then ordered by when I will read them next: no time soon, and sometime soon but probably not this year

Other systems that are very Instagram-friendly but make no sense in the real world include ordering:

  1. By colour
  2. By height
  3. By thickness
  4. By number of pages—not the same as thickness and, therefore, not exactly in order!
  5. Hardback or paperback
  6. Publication date—this might seem like a fab idea but think of all the series you own that will be interspersed with other books. Ew.

The moral of this story is: order your books however you darn like. If, like me, you get an immense and immeasurable joy from moving books around a two-dimensional plane, you have probably already experimented and found your way. And for anyone who thinks this a very odd way to waste one’s time, I suggest you give it a go. And if you don’t want to, maybe I can come over sometime and do it for you?

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