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!)


  1. Oh the eternal dilemma!
    Right now, my books are sorted by genre: linguistics, language textbooks, religion and history in one bookcase with special shelves for Arabic, Maltese, Indo-european studies and contact linguistics. Belles lettres are in a separate bookcase over there *points*, currently mixed with my most prized possessions (some late Judeo-Arabic prints, three early Slovak prints, one Arabic manuscript). And then there are two built-in shelves next to my computer with dictionaries for easy access. Once I’m done painting, I’m buying a new bookcase and there will be some major reshuffling.

  2. I think that the problem has no solution so long as one relies only on shelf order. If, however, one can use a computer database, which allows many different arrangments, as an index into the shelf order, the shelf order ceases to matter very much.
    Incidentally, the probably apocryphal story is that the old Harvard classification was based on the height of the author.

  3. The colour sorting would be great for public libraries, when the patron comes in and asks for a book, can’t remember the title or author, but does remember that it is blue.
    I’m not making this up.

  4. I organize by subject and sub-subject, and roughly alphabetically for the larger groups. Some subjects (e.g. Chinese philosophy or history) will mix languages.
    That’s the official story, In actuality, usually about 10% of my books are in separate piles: specific research projects, books I am reading now, books I plan to read soon, and several different piles of books I once planned to read soon (the wreckage of broken dreams).
    Except that since I moved about 70% of my books are still in three stacks of boxes: books I’ll probably never read again or at all, books I want to look through to see if I want to read them, and books I hope to read or to reread and really should get out on the shelves.

  5. I have the perfect system. As soon as those blinking scientists can expand the extra dimensions up into macrocosmic distances, I can implement it.

  6. I sort strictly by size. It looks orderly but is actually pleasantly random — not unlike me.

  7. We put the books on the shelf back when we moved into this house in by subject.
    But now, when I look around, things have slowly moved into piles and shelves based on frequency of use.

  8. I classify books into three groups: those which will fit on the paperback-sized shelves, those which will fit on the standard shelves, and those which will do neither. There are also books in bags waiting to be shelved.
    I should add that most shelves have two rows of books on them.

  9. But, LH, you still didn’t tell us, how you manage the problem mentioned in the article, namely fractions of used shelf space. What if your travel books take 2,5 shelves, do you fill the remainder with German porcelain dolls?
    Incidentally, looking up Henry Murphy, the Mayor, Senator and builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, I came across an article about his library that he collected in Holland and US (the link is in my last post). “…His library was complex and complete to the point of obsession but it was the age to obsess and he did so very effectively. It is no longer possible to do what he did. In his time he saw the opportunity and made the most of it. That chance will not come again.”
    No word on how HE organised his book avalanche.

  10. I sort mostly by size, myself.
    Any mention of sorting by color reminds me of the opening scene from Captains Courageous, where the (utterly spoiled) protagonist complains about the non-uniformity of colors of the books, and explains that in his house, all books are bound with a color that matches the room’s color scheme.
    (I think that was more fashionable in Kipling’s time — I’ve read that books sometimes used to be displayed in stores without any bindings, and shoppers would choose what binding they wanted — but still. Crazy.)

  11. I’ve read that books sometimes used to be displayed in stores without any bindings, and shoppers would choose what binding they wanted — but still. Crazy.
    Well, iPods come in three or so different colors with optional laser engraving. So I’d say no, not crazy. Fashion stays, objects change.

  12. the (utterly spoiled) protagonist complains about the non-uniformity of colors of the books, and explains that in his house, all books are bound with a color that matches the room’s color scheme.
    Sounds like the books in Cibber’s library in The Dunciad:
    The rest on Out-side merit but presume,
    Or serve (like other fools) to fill a room;
    Such with their shelves as due proportion hold,
    Or their fond Parents dressed in red and gold;
    Or where the pictures for the page atone,
    And Quarles is sav’d by beauties not his own…

  13. I order my books in mych the same way as I used to order my CDs before the mp3 usurped the music industry.
    Choose whatever ordering system you want, but as soon as you take a book/CD off the shelf, move everything else along to fill the space. The book/CD you’ve just used is then replaced at the end where you’ve created a gap.
    After a little while you’ll have arranged them by frequency of use without having to devote a single thought to the process (though I’ll accept that this may not be feasible for larger libraries).

  14. michael farris says

    You mean… some people … sort ….. books?
    I’ve tried grouping them together in various ways but nothing ever works for all of them or for long and mostly rely just on remembering where they are (roughly). It’s not foolproof but it’s worked better than anything else I’ve tried.

  15. I’m not making this up.
    I know all too well that you’re not. I used to work in bookstores, and we used to aim vicious curses at customers who wanted us to point them to “that best-seller, you know, the red one.” Not to their faces, of course.
    several different piles of books I once planned to read soon
    *weeps bitter tears of recognition*
    I should add that most shelves have two rows of books on them.
    All of my shelves have two rows of books on them. I actually had some single-row shelves after my wife built a new set of shelves on the north wall of my office, but I took care of that in no time. Books expand to fill the space available.
    how you manage the problem mentioned in the article, namely fractions of used shelf space
    Oh, there’s always some little pile of books that need a home. For instance, I stuck a half-shelf of Central Asian books between the Greece books and the travel books. And I neglected to mention I have a couple of shelves of miscellanea where I look when I can’t find something anywhere else.
    I order my books in mych the same way as I used to order my CDs before the mp3 usurped the music industry.
    I still haven’t moved beyond the CD, and I doubt I ever will. (It was hard enough weaning me off LPs.) Alas, my CDs are still in utter disorder from the last move, and I can never find anything when I want it. Just yesterday I discovered my Franz Koglmann CDs on a lower shelf in my wife’s office.

  16. Fitzroy Cyclonic says

    Random. So I can spend as much fruitless time as possible searching for a book, often going back into rooms wondering if I have perhaps missed the slender volume, and also so I can get waylaid and never actually accomplish what I intended in the first place and then wonder whether I mistakenly put it in the stack of books in a bag in the wardrobe behind my bed containing volumes that one afternoon I decided I would either never read again, or indeed never read at all; this being done to create more shelf space for more books that all seem to be on the floor, the dining table, my desk, by my bed, on the cistern, on the occasional table and in the curious little impromptu pillars that I knock over when going for a piss in the middle of the night.
    Works for me.

  17. One of the subtler joys of moving in together was the fact that the boyfriend & I could now mix our books. That felt much more intimate than putting the various amounts of kitchenware in the same cupboard for some reason. We have decided on genres, and within genre alphabetical on author or person-as-subject, but that is alright for us, because it seems we have much less genres than most people on this post. There are always half-shelves, but they get filled with miscellanea and detective writers of the 1930’s, grossly alphabetical bur mostly not. The Shelf of Shame, fantasy and Sci-fi of the soppy variety (but perfect for rainy sunday-afternoons, and while nursing a flu) is nowhere near eye-level, and we have put a very large plant in front of it.

  18. You know I still live in a room to small to accommodate a bookshelf worthy of my collection, so, by necessity, I sort by size. Otherwise the stacks would fall over.
    I have also been forced to sort by read/unread status, since after all something has to go in the bottom boxes.
    The great thing about this system is that occasionally while rummaging about for something you run across something else that you had forgotten all about but which is just the thing for the morning train ride.

  19. I sort by an ‘adjusted alphabet’, that is, first alphabetize them, then adjust for aesthetics: I like to have a sine-wave of heights.
    Incidentally, I love my wife to death. We share everything, even toothbrushes. But still, I’d never mix our books. That would just be unhygienic.
    “books sometimes used to be displayed in stores without any bindings”
    In fact, the norm, in the early days of printing.

  20. I have an excellent system. I sort by size – the bigger books at the bottom, the rest sort of piled on top of them. (Big books aren’t read very much in our household. The Little Coffee Book is naturally very well thumbed.)

  21. I have my fiction alphabetical in the bedroom and the non-fiction sorted roughly by subject and sub-subject in the living room. Though I put things like the Tain, El Cid (and all of the El Cid reference material), and Canturbury Tales out in public, since they’re usually reference material. And to solve an age-old question, the NRSV Bible is in with the fiction (author: God) and the Vulgate and KJV are in with the medieval/ren religious works.

  22. And to solve an age-old question, the NRSV Bible is in with the fiction (author: God) and the Vulgate and KJV are in with the medieval/ren religious works.
    Nice solution :o) I’m still wondering how my bibles wound up on the same shelf as Beowulf, Edda and Ugaritic mythological texts. My subconcious has lawyered up, so no answer there…

  23. You mean… some people … sort ….. books?
    Well, some of us try. But looking at my coffee table I’d say we fail more than we succeed.

  24. “And to solve an age-old question…”
    My Bibles are, naturally, next to Freud, Marx, and, er, L. Ron Hubbard.

  25. Siganus Sutor says

    We certainly all need to acknowledge that Michael Farris is concretely, absolutely and definitively right.

  26. The comments had me chuckling more than I have in days!
    You people are lucky to have a good home for your books. I have been “temporarily” living overseas for almost 30 years. I have boxes and boxes of books in my parents’ garage in Australia, and two bookshelves full here in China — in the hotel guestroom-sized quarters supplied by my company. Yesterday I bought a French and German dictionary to supplement the ones I have back in Australia. Nothing like doubling up 🙁
    I also bought a book on Chinese morphology (by Packard) for about $4, not remembering that I’d already bought it a few years back for something more like $40 — I’m not sure, it’s back in Australia.
    Moving is also traumatic. It takes months to get everything back in its proper place (by subject and genre), and when you finally do you realise that one or another has gone missing (this time a Vietnamese translation of ‘The Little Prince’, which I’ve had to order again).
    I dream of the day I can have all my books around me in one place, but I suspect by that time my eyesight will be too poor to read them.

  27. After trying a bunch of different systems, I, too, have fallen to just not sorting at all. Because of the nice ladder bookcases we just got at Target, I’ve done a little sorting based on size. But mostly no sorting at all.
    My bookcases are developing little mini-sorted pockets (books on atonement are here, biblical commentaries are mostly over there, etc.) on an ad-hoc basis. That’s about it. Seems to work pretty well with about 500-600 books on display.

  28. I try to keep the books on atonement near to hand in case a rapture emergency situation eventuates.

  29. Anne Fadiman has a great deal to say about all of this (including the mixing of spousal book collections) in her essays, Ex Libris — and with appealing levity.

  30. Siganus Sutor says

    Wasn’t it a French hostage in Lebanon in the 80s who, for two years or more, had just one book to read: volume I of War and Peace? (I presume it was what he had with him when he was kidnapped.) A radical way of solving all classification headaches…

  31. Terry Collman says

    For books I consult regularly (which includes a collection of >600 books on beer and pubs) sorting by genre is the only workable solution: books on beer styles together, books on brewing methods and recipes together, books on brewery history together, divided into company-specific and geographical, books on pubs together, divided into general and regional sub-sections and so on. For other books, while they’re generally sorted by genre, aesthetics then rule: I love putting all the orange Penguin paperbacks together, all the blue Pelicans, all the white Fabers and so on …

  32. The key to genre sorting is to have one paramount genre. Say your paramount genre is Russian. So if you have, say, Russian poetry, you put it with russian, and not poetry. Biography of Russian physicist? In russian, and not biography or science. No confusion or indecision!
    A possible exception is cookbooks, which should always be kept together regardless of theme.

  33. Reading these comments is delightful.
    I’ve moved house every single summer for the last decade, and each move has given me an opportunity to resort my library, except for the summer before the transoceanic move when I sold off practically everything (comparing buy to sell prices put a damper on my enthusiasm for book acquisition that only began to wear off a few years ago). This latest re-sort has been the most successful, I think – I had to host a dinner shortly after moving in, so I ended up just putting books on shelves as the came out of the box. Everything’s pleasantly jumbled, but since it always tended to end up that way in the end, anyway, I’m at least eight months ahead of myself.
    I’ll have to remember some of the strategies commenters have described for my next move.

  34. When we moved into our new house back in July, my wonderfully eccentric partner decided to sort the books by colour. And although I thought it daft at first, it works really well. I can most books without having to scan titles, so you can start the scanning process from across the room, far further from the shelves than you are actually able to read. And it looks nice, too.
    Incidentally, Brits may remember an old Two Ronnies sketch about a bookseller who sorted by size and colour.

  35. I take a more Zen-like approach to my bookshelf; there’s a row for subjects I care about (mostly travel, medieval Indian history and complexity), another row for authors I care about, another for _books_ I care about, one more for books that I want others to think I care about, and finally, one row which I deliberately keep empty for what I call as the n-th book, the book that I’m about to buy. I also stack it up with objects I really care about; a model of the Angkor Wat I picked up in Cambodia, a Chinese sword I picked up in Thailand, and a lava lamp that landed up from god-knows-where.
    The books I don’t care about are in five secret compartments deep inside my wardrobe.

  36. (Er, hi, haven’t been here in a while.) Until a boyfriend moved in with me, all my CDs were organized by mood/emotional associations. All Seattle bands were lumped together, and right next to them were the Minneapolis ones, as those were the two cities I had lived in previously. All the really angry music had its own shelf, as did my soothing female vocalists. Music I liked to play while cleaning house had its own category. It was, in short, complete chaos, a system only I could understand, which I think was half its appeal to me.
    Somehow, my books never got reorganized during the Big Move, and they’re still, um… well, it’s sort of a system. One entire bookshelf is dedicated to books I got at my local independent bookstore. Another, downstairs, is for recent acquisitions that I think I might want to loan out to friends. A third very large one is divided into sections. The foreign-language books and the weighty historical tomes share a shelf, on the theory that they are all books that I mean to read, but never will. Another shelf is for well-pawed favorites from childhood onward. Guilty pleasures (including some of my less intelligent genre fiction and any Dave Barry et al that I own) get stuck near the bottom. Books that I sort of hope someone will take off my hands are front and center (the bookshelf is in my guest bedroom). Books I am proud to have gotten through sort of blend into those Books I Mean To Read One Day. There are a few other categories (books I read in college, books about journalism, books that make me feel like I’m keeping up with the hipster nation), but none of them make any more sense than the ones I’ve just listed. Guess that will have to wait till the next BF. At least my CDs are alphabetized now.

  37. Reading about the mixing books with someone thing makes me feel lonely.
    I sort by: 1) language books 2) all that other stuff.
    Every once in a while I take my digital camera out and photograph all my bookshelves.
    When I’m done, I feel free to knock it all over and ponder impermanence.

  38. How Shall I Sort Thee, Let Me Count The Ways
    Patrick Hall: sign up for a free account at (I’m not employed by them) and put your photo of your bookshelf(ves) up there. It sounds interesting, and maybe we’ll do the same.

  39. Steve Maguire says

    I followed your link to LibraryThing and saw your comments on how to find books. The problem with that is that after using a book, it might be difficult to return it to the correct place.
    I have about 10% of my books on LibraryThing and intend to get the Library of Congress catalog number on as many as I can (and make up a number similar for those I can’t find). The plan then is to label each book (I wish I could find labels like post it notes that leave no residue). Then sort and shelve by the LOC number.
    It’s not that I am tied to the LOC but rather I want some code to use and that and the Dewey system are almost universal.
    I’ve done something similar with our DVD collection (about 400). It sort of works — the kids leave them out on top of the shelves and I regroup them to the category code I invented and re-shelve them by the color codes on the labels.

Speak Your Mind