Having written a book about a woman who re-arranges a bookshop into new categories, I am often asked the all important question: how do you organize your bookshelves?
And I always wish I had a better answer. I’m thinking something like the man in High Fidelity, who organized his music collection auto-biographically, so that in order to find any specific lp or cd he had to remember when he bought it. But the truth is, having worked in a bookshop, I know how very much work it is to re-organize a bookshelf. Books are heavy. Books are dusty. Any type of re-arranging will involve sweating and sneezing. And chaos. And once you’ve decided, you have to stick with it or do it all over again.
For example, years ago I decided to organize at least my fiction shelves in a traditional alphabetical order. I was young and ambitious, if I had known the dewey decimal system I would probably have gone for that too. So now when I buy books I have to sort them or leave them in piles laying around waiting to be sorted.
“Why do I have so many books?!” I asked my sister in desperation a few weeks ago, and then of course I had to go and wash my mouth with soap and stand in the corner.
The thing is, you see, I’m not really good with the alphabet. In order to find the placing of a specific letter, I have to start at the beginning every time. So there I was, walking around muttering for my self: “a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m – ah, m comes before n.” It is increadibly boring. The alphabet gets very repetitve after a while. And then of course I sneezed. And if you’re really unlucky, you find the m-shelft only to discover that there’s another Macdonald already there, and then you have to start all over again with a, b, c, etc. to find out whether or not Helen comes before or after. And sneeze again.
And do I sort the books not yet read, or will they disappear in the bookshelves and be lost forever?
And then it struck me. Do I really have to organize all my books alphabetically? Could I, perhaps, just have a more chronological To be read-shelf? I need hardly add that I meant an entire bookcase, not just one shelf. I already have more than four shelves of unread books.
Or would I be haunted by the ghosts of angry librarians who would extinguish my reading light at the very moment when I was reading something incredibly scary?
But I did it. Which brings me to the original question about how I organize my books.
My bedroom looks very much like a library with a bed in it, which is exactly the way I want it, except that I am running out of walls. Every bookshelf I buy, I promise my sister to be the last, and naturally it never is. Here I keep most of my fiction; literary and commercial and crime a like. There’s almost an entire shelf of Dick Francis, and then there’s my collection of beautiful old books by Remarque, a few Nobel prize winners, mostly Saramago, because I read his Blindness when I was young and fell in love with it. Michael Connely and Lee Child of course, and my first edition Helen Hanff on a special shelf, and my book perfume (it didn’t smell like books, but it was worth a try), post cards of Dewey the Library Cat, piles of Jane Austen and Shakespeare’s comedies but not his tragedies. And one, tiny, lonely empty shelf for future books bought…
Then there is the kitchen. I have used a kitched cupboard for my cooking books, and I have two cute shelves right in front of where I work at the kitchen table. The shelves in the kitchen are for reference books about writing. I have too many, because when I get stuck I tell myself that reading them is almost like writing. My favorite is How not to write a novel. Even if you aren’t a writer, you can read it just for the sheer fun of it.
In the living room, there are as many bookcases as my sister allowed, which is three. And a half. I sort of snuck the half one in. But I share it with my sisters books. I am generous, that way.
Here are the shelves for the living room:
One shelf for our Terry Pratchett-books
One shelf for biographies about writers (and some musicians)
One shelf for Agatha Christie
One for my books about The Great War (one day I’m going to write a book about it that’s so thoroughly miserable I’m going to have to publish it under psedonym)
One for mostly my sisters books, which I in my head call Male Humour (Christoffer Moore, Carl Hiassen)
Three shelves for my sisters art books (the bottom ones, because they are too large to fit otherwise)
One for our Georgette Heyer-books
Three for general biographies and popular history
Two bookcases (approximately) for my old political books, everything from Simone de Beauvoir to Stonewall to Che Guevara and Malcom X and political science-books about social movements and feminism and race
Two shelves for popular science/, suchs as Gladwell, which I’ve grown amazingly addicted to in later years
What have I forgotten?
Oh, the “office”! That is, the smallest room in the apartment where my printers live. Two bookcases, but at least half of them is full of my sister’s art projects and the material and equipment she needs for it. I do have a couple of shelves, though, where I keep my own book in different language; the author’s copies that regularly arrive from Spain or Taiwan or the US or Brazil or China. I don’t really know what to do with them all, seeing how I can only read Swedish and English. My dad gets one copy of every book. I think he’s starting his own collection.
And there it is. An… organic organization. But it is fascinating with books, how they are sort of archeological layers, telling you the shifting story of your life and interest at a glance.