The Art and Science of Organizing Bookshelves

With our recent home improvements, I’ve gotten a chance to take on one my favorite organizational task–reorganizing my bookshelves. Although I dearly love my books, I only change how they’re ordered in a big way when we’re moving the shelves so they end up unloaded.

I believe a person’s bookshelves tell a lot about them. Are the books jumbled, or carefully placed? Ordered by author or category? Stacked by size or publication date? What authors show up in the prominent locations, and which are relegated to the bottom left corner behind the end table?

Although the programmer in me longs for a complete, perfectly alpha-then-date-sorted library, that doesn’t feed the reader in me. My books make a statement about me, so I want to put the right foot forward.

Most of our shelves are about six feet high or taller (just got a Billy bookcase from IKEA with extension… not only is it beautiful, but it almost goes to the ceiling. Loving that extra space!) That means that the top two shelves are close to eye-height for most people–prime real-estate!

First thing that goes on those prime shelves is my current to-read pile. This is more of a mixed bag than how the rest of the sorting goes, but it lets me know at a glance what’s up next.

Next–place the favorite author in plain view. For this go-around, it meant Gaiman, McKillip, Martin, Vonnegut, Richard K. Morgan, Wolfe and my graphic novels (Sandman, Cerebus, Watchmen, various other standbys). This is a carefully chosen list that changes over time. They’re the books that if someone said, “What should I read?” I’d reach straight for without hesitation. They’re the books I want other readers to see when they examine my shelves–and any reader knows, your eyes go to the shelves when you enter a room.

After that, there are two criteria–cool looking books and categories. I’ll generally block off areas for rough groups like sci-fi, fantasy, historical, mystery, non-fiction, etc. And we all know some books are just more attractive than others, so those get a promotion.

Normally there’re some left-overs that don’t quite fit the categories or the allocated space. These get relegated to the bottom with the magazines, cookbooks and other media.

So that’s my process. How do you organize your books? What’s at the top of your shelf at the moment?