There are people who have books, and then there are people who have books.
For some of us, the books we own are like an introduction to who and what we are. We’re the kind of people that, when we enter someone’s home for the first time, we promptly seek out the bookshelves and see just who this is we’re talking to.
In this age of digital media and smaller dwellings, more and more of us are buying only books that we’re really influenced by, so they tell that much more about us.
It’s really worth taking the time to get to know your book collection and display it in a way that says a lot about not only you but also the collections of genres and topics you’re fascinated with.
Bookshelves as a statement on your life
A few years ago, a friend of mine helped me to pare back my belongings, from books to shoes to personal keepsakes. In the process, she taught me this approach to making my bookshelves a statement on my life, interests, and loves.
While moving in to my new home recently, I took the whole weekend to wipe every book and knickknack down before placing them on my newly repainted bookshelves. Like my friend taught me, I spend the night grouping things in a way that was relevant to me.
This is where you can’t go wrong. Maybe, like the friend of a friend, you favor the Dewey decimal system. Maybe, like John Cusack’s character in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, you want to go with a “biographical” organizing scheme. Maybe you’re old-school and you want straight-up alphabetical.
It’s all about what works for you, but today we’re talking about how to tell stories or convey something of yourself through your bookshelves.
Creating a personal literature pantheon
My shelves, they’re organized by way of genres and styles. I’ve got British, American, Modern American, European, Russian. Separate from American and Modern American are the Psychedelic/Edgy authors, like Vonnegut, Kesey, Tom Robbins, Henry Miller, Bukowksi, Joseph Heller, and more. Hunter S. Thompson gets his own section once again.
There are the more contemplative foreign authors I like to group together, from Saramago’s Blindness to Paulo Coelho’s collective works to Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jose Borges.
There are books on writing and the craft of writing in one section, and journalism, political, and historical books in another, and so forth.
The fact that I group all these books in specific ways says something about how I see the world, how I absorb information. As a collective piece, they say something too. You can find your own common threads between different authors, genres. It doesn’t matter if that thread’s applicable to others, since you’re the person who needs to find the books later. I have clear spaces between different sections, and in between goes my keepsakes and photos.
Inserting the photos and keepsakes redefines all my groupings of books. So how do you pick what to use?
Thinking about practicalities, too
Avoiding clutter is nice. Negative space is attractive in your bookshelf. It pays off to have more book storage space than you need, so you’re not jamming everything in. So, don’t keep lesser-than books. Read them or donate them to charity or your local library. Keep only that which speaks to what you love about writing and reading, topics you love, or books that have defined you, and, of course, books you wish to read in the future.
Once you’ve got only the essentials, see how much “extra” space there might be. This is where you place the right pictures and mementoes between your grouped authors and genres. But what goes where?
Personal associations to personalize your bookshelf space
Well, going back to my Psychedelic/Addict writers on one side of a shelf, with my Hunter S. Thompson collection opposite it, I’ve got a framed Ralph Steadman picture in between in which Raoul Dude’s (HST’s alter-ego) lawyer says, “Slow down, man, I can’t keep up.” Obviously this combination works. I also have a fun little “I’m saving up for rehab!” collector’s bank tin on the shelf too.
Others combinations are more subtle for me. Like my philosophical writers, such as Camus, Sartre, Rimbaud, which are bookended by a 4-volume set of George Orwell’s essays, then a few Russian underground writers, followed by Huxley, Plato, Henry David Thoreau, and such. They’re all pretty far apart in some ways, but for me, they’re all schools of thought I was introduced to in college, so bibliographically, cramming it all on one shelf makes sense to me, despite some of it being French, some Russian, some ancient, some modern. A couple photos in between, and it’s done.
And so how do you pair belongings with such intellectual concepts? You see what works for you.
Home decor and your books
For instance, with my English writing section, when I thought “British,” it reminded me of silverware and other British things. That’s why I put my silver candle holders by my British books, as well as my very proper white leather baby shoes from my first year of life, a photo of my mother looking like a model in her 20s, and a picture of my nephew from watching scull rowing competitions.
For me, they all sort of seem to work with the idea of Britishness. It doesn’t need to be right in a global sense, it just needs to look good and make sense to me. For others, it’ll likely be a fun collection.
On my cookbook shelves, I’ve got a funky ‘70s fondue pot and a mid-century beans pot, as well as a 100-year-old butter churn.
In the end, it’s about taking the subjects at hand, looking around at things you have and love, and coming up with a reason why this picture or that knickknack works with that group of authors/subjects. If you can’t find a reason, just put something nice in there.
If you don’t have enough knickknacks and photos, then turn the odd book face-out. This is when it really is okay to judge a book by its cover.
Bookshelf organization – make it fun!
Make it a fun project. Cue up some movies on Netflix, get some wine, and take an evening or two to really get into the project. I would suggest some writerly movies I love, like Stranger than Fiction, the Wonder Boys, Capote, the Player, Misery, Sideways, Adaptation, or any other movie on this intriguing list.
Do a great job and your bookshelves will always be a conversation-maker when you have folks over for the first time. And the best thing is, you’ll finish with a new list of books you’re prioritizing to read.