A Bibliophile’s Conundrum: How do you organize your books?

There have been complaints recently by my family members (i.e. my husband) about the piles of books that have taken over various parts of the house.  The kitchen table has two stack of books that are getting so high they are threatening to topple over and crush one of the cats.  The book piles are also in the way of the cats’ favorite window from which they view the yard; notice the picture of Henry attempting to navigate around the books in order to watch a chipmunk that has made a nest under his favorite window.

Current stack of books on the kitchen table


Henry attempting to navigate around the current stack of books on the kitchen table

Then there are the various piles on the coffee table, the top of which table can barely be seen because of the amount of books. (As I look at this photo I realize it’s probably not a great idea to have so many candles among my books.)

But it is not that I am lazy or unwilling to move my books.  My issue is one of organization and trying to make decisions about which books go where and oftentimes these important decisions paralyze me.  I like to keep the pile of books that I really want to read immediately (which has grown impossibly large) as close to me as possible, thus all of the Vergil books currently hanging out on my coffee table.  I also like to categorize books by my favorite publishers: thus I have a handsome collection of Seagull Books and New York Review of Books.  But then I also like to collect books by author and by topic.  And finally, my Classics books are organized by subject—Greek tragedy, for instance, and within each of those categories books are further organized by author—Aeschylus, Euripides, etc.

Some of my Seagull Books Collection


Some of my NYRB collection

The conundrum I have comes when a book falls into more than one shelving category; for instance, I have collected many Ann Carson books, but one of them is a NYRB publication, so where do I put that book?  It seems that it ought to go in the Carson section, but then my NYRB collection seems lonely and incomplete without it.  And what should I do with the Bachmann/Celan Correspondence book that I recently reviewed?  I want to put it with the other Seagull titles, but then again I have a growing section of Bachmann books and a small section of Celan poetry.  Oh, and I also have a shelf of books all about letters and correspondence (the Letters of Virginia Woolf, Love Letters of Great Men, Nabakov’s Letters to Vera, etc.)

Books from my Classics collection

Nothing aggravates me more than when I can’t find a book because I forgot where I shelved it.  I have been looking for my copy of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening for weeks.  Did I put it with the philosophy books?  It isn’t with the other Nancy titles.  I bought a translation of Propertius’s poetry that has the exact same cover as the Nancy book.  Should I have a section of books that have the same covers?  It’s really exhausting.  My husband has generously offered to build me another bookshelf or two; although this also further enables my habit of book hoarding.

How do my fellow bibliophiles organize books?  I would love to see some photos!


Filed under Anne Carson, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Seagull Books

43 responses to “A Bibliophile’s Conundrum: How do you organize your books?

  1. Jonathan

    Well, if a book falls in to two categories then you obviously need to have two copies. 🙂

    I’d take up your husband’s offer of more shelving.

    I’m very short of space so I try to get as much on kindle, from the library or pass the books on (this is why I’m concentrating on my TBR pile this year as it’s got out of control). But obviously some books we just have to keep.

    Apart from the books I’m reading I have none on display; instead they’re either stuffed away in a cupboard or in the loft; I know roughly where most of them are but it’s not an infallible method. Here’s a picture (I hope it displays) of my ‘cupboard of books’.


  2. Impossible to have a system! Too many books…. Our collection of fiction and some reference books are in the sitting room, and cookery books and the rest of the reference in the hall. My other half has her collection of art books in her studio, and I have all the rest of mine in my study: literature, history, religion, travel, science fiction and all the oddments. There are travel guides in the filing cabinet in the garage (!) and I have half a dozen crates of science fiction and other stuff in the loft. Most of the time I can lay my hands on what I’m looking for. Oh, and I’ve probably downsized my library by a third in the last five years – now only just over two thousand books.


    • You’ve just reminded my of my stack of cookbooks in the kitchen and my stack at work in my office! I have a friend in Maine who stores some of his books in the barn, so I guess the garage is a good place as well!


  3. We were only talking last week over supper about the way in which my partner decided to put our books on the shelves any old how when we moved into this house many years ago now. He’s just left bookselling and fancied liberating himself from ordered bookshelves. It drove me nuts and didn’t last long. Such a photogenic pussy-cat you have!


  4. Chipmunks make nests?! My books are in sporadic bursts of order, on shelves in pretty much every room in the house. Those for which there isn’t room are in boxes in the cellar & garage – reproaching me silently

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was assuming it’s a nest. There is a little whole she keeps crawling into and I am assuming she has a whole chipmunk family stashed in there.

      I have about a dozen boxes of books stashed in the attic that still haven’t made it to the book room either. Every time I remember a book that is tucked away up there I feel guilty!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have some shelves, but not enough, so most of my books are in stacks around my bedroom. One of those stacks is almost three feet tall. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Other than the odd stacks of as yet unshelved or just finished reading but not yet reviewed or books to take back to the library or books to give to charity or to friends etc. etc., I am of course very organised (ahem!). I have my professional books on one side, then by country (including geographical regions – so all of my Far East books are together, all of my Nordics are close to my Germans and Austrians and Swiss). That includes books in translation or books about certain countries or authors – for instance, a biography of Voltaire would be on the French shelves. Poetry occupies a separate area, non-fiction too. Sadly, that doesn’t always allow for nice series from the same publisher (although the Fischer Verlag books in German and my sturdy if unglamorous Penguins are all together) and even some height differences on the same shelf (which is profoundly disturbing to my interior design eye). But at least I know I can always find the right book within a minute or so for a quote…
    Now, the e-books are a pain in the neck…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fascinating hearing how others organise their books. I’m afraid I do it rather predictably by author, then each author’s work chronologically. It does make everything easier to find – if it wasn’t for the fact I have to keep half of them in the attic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, it’s so interesting to see how others organize their books. By author sounds like a great system but then I would have to break up my Seagull and NYRB collections!


  8. This rings so many bells. I have mine notionally sorted by subject (Russians, women writers, classics, modern classics, Beats etc) but some are by publisher (Virago, Persephone) and some get a section on their own (Calvino, Brautigan, Agatha Christie, Bulgakov). I often can’t find books – and I tend to try to find them by remembering where I last saw them which is not always successful. The trouble is, there are just too many books for the space I have to keep them in… 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m a simple person.
    I put crime on one side and the rest on other shelves. All books are shelved in alphabetical order. The only breach to this rule is linked to biographies: the bio of Voltaire will be near Voltaire’s books.
    I have shelves for the TBR, with books in alphabetical order.

    If you want to order books by publisher, country, century or whatever, I suggest virtual shelves on goodreads. Then you can put a book in several categories and put the physical copy of the book in alphabetical order, si it is easy to find.

    The downside of my system is that books in English and books in French are one the same shelves and it can be uncomfortable to browse because French and English books don’t have titles written the same way. (You need to tilt you head to the right to read the title of an English book and to the left to read the title of a French book. I really wonder why it’s different.)


  10. I shelve my books loosely by subject and then size but as the shelves mostly full the new incoming books then get piled up – like you, I like to have the need to read soon books close to hand and the ones I’ve read but haven’t yet reviewed are piled in a different area – before I find they won’t fit on the shelf I want to put them on! It is a booklover’s problem!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve gone for regional on my new shelves so is English us then France German east Europe so on but last book case current need to read and favourite publishers books together

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m (hopefully) going to be reunited with my book collection later this year – and I can’t wait to make these sorts of decisions! At the moment my poor parents are still housing most of them, and they have to be in alphabetical order so they can find any I want posted 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  13. buriedinprint

    Aw, surely the family (aka “he”) is overreacting. Isn’t it only a safety concern if the stacks could injure more than one creature simulaneously?!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This sounds just like my problem. It’s not that I’m unwilling to put them away… it’s just that they’re organized the way I want them right now (in their various piles), and if I put them somewhere else, I’d have to re-organize, which does feel paralyzing.
    My husband has made me a few shelves over the years, but we don’t really have space left for more. Not really. Unless we want the shelves to impeded the natural flow of the hallways. But if you have space, I say let your husband make you more book shelves!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. All I can say is, what a lovely dilemma to have!! I organize mine by category, but I leave it loose enough so that it doesn’t matter if I face a choice of it being possible to put it in two places. I just go with where feels right at the time. I actually love books lying randomly around a house, but that could just be me!!


  16. Great post, Melissa! I wish I had a helpful suggestion, but this is the story of my life too. Book piles in kitchen, and nearly every other room. The “read next” pile is also laughably tall at my house (though no cats to protect from ‘falling books’ zone). The worst is hunting for books I know I have. One blogging friend said that she thought using more ebooks would help, because of the search feature; however, she said she tends to collect ebooks and then forget all about them–they’re not in plain sight like those piles.
    If there is any organizational principle I have used over the years, it is probably time of acquisition. Books are grouped by the time period I became interested in an author or subject, and I tend not to disturb old bookshelves with new acquisitions. I seem to recall when better than where.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Luckily, I live alone so I don’t have to hear the jabbers of my family urging me to clean up my “book mess”, yet when I still lived at home it was a frequent debate. About twice a month, I like to take down all my books from my bookshelves (I have about 3 at this point that reach up to the ceiling) and start from scratch in reorganizing all of them. I have A LOT of books, okay, like A LOT. I spend every weekend at the bookstore, credit card in hand, purchasing pretty collections and new releases from my favorite authors. So organizing twice a month is highly needed in my situation. I used to organize by publisher (Penguins and Vintage being my favorite), but that became too restrictive after a while. As my book collection continues to increase I organize more freely based on what I want to read next, what I want to reread, and the books I would recommend to others so I am always ready for the next book as soon as I have finished and am ready to review one.


  18. One thing that really helps me is getting rid of books I don’t read. I get it, I’m a total bibliophile too, and parting with any book is tough, but my thought process is, if you’re never going to read it again, what’s the point of having it? Books are meant to be read, not just to sit there, and if you give away or sell stagnant books, they’re much more likely to fulfill their purpose. My system is to just keep books I’ve read more than once. The rest can be given away to an owner who will give them more love than I did 🙂


  19. I have by books all over, just as you do! Haha. I have a tiny bit of organization where I have a section for plays, graphic novels, cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, and leather bound books and everything else is A-Z. I didn’t buy more shelves, but since I haven’t built it yet, books in piles on my coffee table, in the spare bedroom, my dresser, my nightstand, etc. haha. I may decide to further categorize with Sci Fi- Fantasy together, but I’m not sure. I’m also in the middle of a book un-haul to donate books that I didn’t like, dnf, and the books I “only have because it was cheap at a used bookstore”, but will probably never read. I’ll let you know how it goes. Haha. Good luck!!

    Liked by 1 person

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