That’s the burning question posed by Sarah Crown in a Guardian article:
Believe me, I’ve tried nearly everything. I used to favour the popular “by genre” approach: different shelves for poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction, travel, cookery … The problem there, though, is that the travel shelf ends up only half-full, and then you’re faced with the problem of what to complete it with. So you pick cookery, but cookery spills over onto the next shelf … and so it goes. Even if you decide that, despite its flaws, the genre system is for you, there are further choices to be made. Do you organise each genre alphabetically? Do you attempt the infinitely tricky but profoundly impressive, if you can pull it off, genre-bleed – science into sci-fi, history books into historical fiction? (Actually, the latter would be a non-starter in our house as my boyfriend is a historian and is sceptical – nay, contemptuous – of the entire historical fiction field).
Perhaps you forsake genre altogether and go alphabetical. If so, does it offend your eye to see towering hardbacks pressed up against slim volumes of poetry? Does the resulting disjunction persuade you that you should abandon the alphabet and arrange your books entirely on aesthetic grounds, by size or – whisper it – colour? And is there any form of classification that won’t break down within the first three months, leaving you surrounded by piles of books that you know, in your heart, will never come within striking distance of a shelf until the next time you move, when the whole process begins again?
There are in fact people who arrange books by color; me, I use the traditional arrangement by subject, with history, travel, religion, language, and Russia-related books up here in my office; literature, poetry, music, and science down in my wife’s office; and baseball, science fiction, Vietnam, and other miscellaneous topics down in the basement (having a basement at last was one of the joys of buying this house). Order within each genre depends; in literature, it’s alphabetical by author, in history it’s by region and period, and in travel… hmm, travel appears to be pretty chaotic. I do rearrange them from time to time: the growing pile of Russian-history books on the floor persuaded me to move a bunch of religion books elsewhere and allow an expansionist Russia to invade their former shelves. With over 5,000 books now, there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving. (Thanks for the link, Glyn!)