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The Art of Ordering My Bookshelves

the art of ordering my bookshelves

Clothes, clean and dirty, often line the top of my dresser as I anticipate wearing something the next day or just haven’t put laundry away. Our fridge is a Jenga puzzle: a bag of sausages perches on top of a cinnamon roll pan; a pot with last night’s chicken tikka masala is squeezed in; various cheeses shoved into a shelf on the door. And please don’t ask about my desk.

But my bookshelves? They’re not just neat or organized; they’re ordered. This specific ordering, the rules of which can change from year to year, keeps the chaos of hundreds of books manageable. I sequence my books alphabetically by the author’s last name and sort books by the same author alphabetically by title. If the books are part of a series, I arrange the series by number. While it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing order visually, it’s efficient. I know where any book is within seconds.

The system isn’t infallible, though. As I’ve collected more and more books, questions arise: Is everything alphabetized by author, or do I separate out by genre or age range? In high school, I faced such a disruption to my ordering system: Do I combine the children’s books I had amassed as a young reader with my new collection of Important Adult Literature? It seemed odd to have Diary of a Wimpy Kid next to Jack Kerouac. I have avoided the issue for a few years now as my children’s books are packed in boxes, but now that I’ve got my own apartment, it’s time to meld everything together into one collection.

In part, however, I’ve already decided on the children’s vs. adult books by deciding on another question regarding the ordering of nonfiction texts. In recent years, I have begun to sort out nonfiction, such as textbooks, from my literature collection. The tricky part is deciding where to place creative nonfiction books that have literary merits. Is In Cold Blood literary enough to stand alongside my literature, or should it be relegated to nonfiction? Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, obviously, is literary, but it pains me to see it separate from my other writing reference books. (So I bought another copy.) These creative nonfiction books usually find their way onto my general fiction/literature section, and textbooks and books that are decidedly not literary are kept together by category: American history, world history, Rome, Christianity, writing reference, and other assorted textbooks and books. It seems agreeable, then, to separate out the children’s books from the adult books. It fits the already established order of things.

I find comfort in the order. I can spatially visualize where each book is in relation to the nearby books on the shelf, and as a result of the ordering, new relationships are formed between adjacent authors and books. The felicitous grouping of some favorites—Morrison, Murakami, and Nabokov—seems to prove that there is meaning even in the arbitrary sequence of letters in an author’s last name, while the pairing of Rainbow Rowell’s annoying young adult novel Fangirl and J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone mocks the presence of a benevolent God. The sequence of books ascribes meaning to a random order of letters, and it becomes more than just an order—it becomes a collection, my collection. It is representative of how I see the world: The books I’ve read sitting alongside books I’ve skimmed or mean to read. It is as unique as my DNA, and just as meticulously ordered.

Although my system works for me, I have, of course, encountered other systems of ordering books. I worked in my college library for half a year and spent hours reading about the Dewey Decimal System. This is the classic library system for organizing books—it is efficient and exact and allows many people to find the handful of books among the thousands of books in a library. Yet it seems too impersonal and too all-encompassing for my own small library despite its renown as an ordering system. Others use even less organized systems, like grouping books by genre, or color, or randomly throwing books on the shelf with no thought whatsoever (terrifying). Each time I see or hear about a different order, I imagine what it would be like to change the order of my bookshelf, and I always come to the same conclusion: It would feel unnatural. The order of something as inconsequential as the books on my bookshelf ingrained itself into me that to change the order would be to change a piece of myself.

The Dewey Decimal System is not for me.