For 39 months, the books on the shelves of our home remained in the same arrangement, which is to say no arrangement at all. Fiction sat next to non-fiction sat next to travel sat next to children’s books. Then came last weekend, when we executed a long-held plan to get those suckers in some kind of order. It was easy to delay this project for a while, since we both have a bizarre ability to know with creepy accuracy exactly where in the house any book lives. Still, we have too many librarian and bibliophile friends to let such a shameful, haphazard situation stand.
The first step was deciding which methodology we wanted to follow. For fiction it’s easy — group it all together and arrange by author’s last name. We chose our most prominent bookshelves — the six shelves flanking the fake “fireplace” — for the fiction. It filled five of those six shelves, leaving the last one for a category to be named later. (It ended up being the home for poetry, graphic novels and last season’s coffee table books.) This is where we hit our first bump.
Part of the procrastination on this project was due to this thing I have about spine height. I fear wasted space and unbalance, and the thought of mixing trade paperbacks with full-size hardcovers on the same shelf brings on cold sweats. I was willing to give up on this point, however, for the sake of an organized house. (Pitting one aspect of my OCD against another is a cruel trick — and not unlike setting the computer to play itself in chess. I end up both winning and losing, and my central processor gets a heavy workout.) Yet, as I began to shelve the books, I found a beautiful compromise: group the trade paperbacks of consecutive letters together, and stack them vertically between the long-spined ones. So, for instance, all the Joan Didions got grouped with the George Eliots, then turned ninety degrees and stacked between the D’s and the E’s. The height of the stack matched the other, bigger books, and order was restored to the universe.
But what to do with non-fiction? Word is that Dewey is out of fashion. Library of Congress was more appealing, but we just didn’t have enough volume to warrant that specific of a classification. I put in a half-hearted case for organizing by color, which pulled up lame before leaving the gate. I didn’t even start on my idea to arrange them autobiographically. We bounced back and forth between grouping them all together in one massive collection, a la fiction, or subcategorizing them as atomically as possible.
Neither solution seemed to solve all problems. Too many categories, and we’d spend hours determining whether a book of stories about nineteenth century magicians belonged in Essays, Magic, or History. Too few categories, and we’d lose the ability to scan a shelf of books that all shared a common theme.
We ended up with a little of both. A few categories benefitted more from the subcategorization, like books on magic, puzzles, movies and health. It seemed likely that we’d call on these shelves more often than one dedicated to, say, essays. So we put these books in the shelf with the easiest access in the office.
The rest of the non-fiction got clumped together and shelved on the other office bookshelf, which now happily hosts a co-mingling of genres. Books on codebreaking sit adjacent to college texts on Women’s Studies. (Both are equally cryptic.) It’s harder to find something now if you only know the topic, not the title, but that’s a concession we’re willing to make for the sake of serendipity.