I confess. All my life, I have struggled with how to organize the books on my shelf. Even as a child, I spent hours staring at the shelves, puzzling over the best way to sort them. Do I ignore classifications, jumbling novels with atlases, and alphabetize by author? As an adult I wondered, would the arrangement be more attractive if I pull out hardcovers and display them at eye level? Maybe I should separate fiction from nonfiction and then alphabetize. Or better yet, pull out my favorite fiction and place it at shoulder height, where it’s easiest to grab.
Every time we moved, I tried something new. Mixing poetry with religion, essays with memoir. Clustering the classics. And then I worked at a book store.
Until I was employed by Barnes & Noble, I didn’t pay much attention to how their books were organized. As a shopper, I head straight for fiction, and I never thought to care how everything else was shelved. To me, the rest of the space was simply nonfiction.
Once I started recovering customers’ abandoned books, finding their homes in the store, and then shelving them, I slowly opened my eyes to a shelving system that made sense to me. A system that classified and then alphabetized, mixed hardcovers with paperbacks, used words like “cookbooks” and “religion” instead of the 641.8 and 291.18 of the dewey decimal system. At the time, we were boxing up our own library, preparing to move across the country. With each new category I discovered, I was equipped with more shelving knowledge. So here is where David Sedaris belongs – in essays, at the end of fiction. And look, science fiction and fantasy have their own section!
I couldn’t wait to get to our new home, unpack the boxes, and settle the books on the shelves. I imagined the familiar titles in what I now considered to be their proper places.
We are all moved in now, and our best books are on the top shelf, where premium belongs. Those would be our novels – the ones that have survived 11 relocation-inspired purges. Next come science fiction and fantasy, followed by essays, then poetry. Kids’ books are on the left shelf, grown-ups’ on the right. Religion follows poetry, then memoir and biography, art and photography, regional, and finally, reference. The crafting books – soap, lotion, and jewelry making, knitting, sewing – are all in the basement. They are too messy for a respectable reading-room shelf.
The shelves are tidy, without looking artificially groomed. When I want a poetry pick-me-up, I know I’ll find Basho’s haiku in the right hand case, third shelf down, next to my namesake, Robert Burns. If I want something a sillier, I’ll move over to the left case and pull Shel Silverstein. When I’ve run out of fiction ideas from the public library, I browse our top shelf for something familiar, something I know I’ll love. A comfort book.
I confess. After years of struggling with how to organize our library, I modeled our shelves after a big box book store. And I love them.