De-Organizing the Bookshelves: The Alphabetizer’s Elegy

Shelf styling is a big topic in the world of blogs, Pinterest, and Instagram.  I’m no stranger to #shelfies, but there are some bookshelf styling trends out there that I just can’t abide.  I can relate to remembering books by the color of the cover, so organizing by hue doesn’t bother me, but I regard other shelf-styling trends as anti-book.   Turning books page-side out or covering all the spines in plain white paper elevates form over substance and makes me cringe.  Bookshelves are for books!

I myself have always been a vehement alphabetizer.  I like my books organized by genre and then by the author’s last name.  That’s how our books have been organized in the living room since I moved in, but the visual effect was, well, just look:

Red House West || Bookshelf Styling

Red House West || Bookshelf Styling

Ooft. It hurts a little to show you this, but if you could zoom in you would see that the organization was exquisite.  After living with the shelves in this condition for years I finally admitted to myself that the well-ordered array was visually barf-rageous.  The problem is this: most of the shelves are too small to allow ordinary sized books to stand upright.  In order to organize by author’s name, I had to lay most of the books on their sides, which looks, ironically, extremely disorganized.

So, I muttered the serenity prayer to myself and decided to organize the books by . . . size.  Which basically means I decided to throw all organization out the window and put the books on the shelves where they fit.  Autobiographies mingle with novels, books of poetry sit cheek to jowl with non-fiction.

Alphabetized organization exhausted all appeals.  This book was my size guide for books that fit on the smaller shelves.

The Executioner’s Song was the biggest book that could fit on the upper shelves.  I used it as a ruler to find other books that would fit up there too.  I’ve been trying to think of something funny to say about this but keep coming up waaaay short.  This is the book against which all others are measured?  Alphabetization went before the firing squad?  You see my dilemma.

Despite having essentially no organizing principle, taking all of the books down, removing ancient boarding passes from their pages, and blowing dust from their covers, helped me to reacquaint myself with what lives on these shelves.  The other upside is that the shelves look a lot better too:

Red House West || Organizing the Book Shelves

Opal’s books occupy the bottom shelf and are definitely the most frequently paged through tomes we have.

Red House West || Organizing the Bookshelves

I prefer a tighter arrangement of books (another pet peeve is shelves that have a high stuff:book ratio). I wanted it to look pleasing but not too perfect; shelves that include well-loved books, a few treasured objects, and invite frequent perusal.

Red House West || Organizing the Bookshelves

Red House West || Organizing the Bookshelves

My husband’s birth announcement. I love that the other notable events of the day include stag mountain oysters at the VFW, and a chili dog special at the A&W “Island of Refreshment.”

Here are the shelves on the other side of the entrance to the living room:

Red House West || Organizing the Bookshelves

I also painted the speaker wire white, and relocated Opal’s little table to the playroom.

And here are a few pulled back shots (with a bonus view of Cora’s Spy vs. Spy pointy face).

Red House West || Organizing the Bookshelves

Red House West || Organizing the Bookshelves

The day after I finished revamping the shelves our carbon monoxide detector malfunctioned, which resulted in the fire department coming out. One of the firefighters commented to Chester that our house is “really clean and organized.”  At least emergency responders battling the silent killer are fooled!

In all seriousness, I’m really pleased with the shelves.  I feel like despite being not organized, they are organized in the sense that I know where everything is again, and they are a lot nicer to look at!

Thanks for reading along everyone, Katie will be back next week with a new post!

23 responses on “De-Organizing the Bookshelves: The Alphabetizer’s Elegy

  1. artpippin

    I love the transformation, and I especially like the bowls on the top shelf. Your project reminded me of a very funny story of when I organized my husband bookshelf in our living room. My husband is an academic (teaches Philosophy and Ethics), and thus we have many books around the house with very obscure titles. One day I took the liberty upon myself and re-organized his books by color. I have to say the final project turned out nicely. When I showed him my great accomplishment, he had heart attack and informed me he organized his books in a very specific manner, and to keep my paws off his books! He loves to share this story with fellow academics, because there is an unspoken rule with academics you don’t mess with their books, but eventually they all laugh until they are in stitches. So when I see bookshelves tastefully organized with elements of artwork it pulls at my heart strings.

      1. artpippin

        Sadly my project was dismantled, and the books were immediately re-organized back to their

        happy place. Paw off the his books is the motto in the house!

  2. Leslie

    So now when you go to find a book, you’ll have to play the “bigger or smaller than Norman Mailer?” game. The shelves look really great! I’m inspired to figure out a bookshelf set-up in my main living area, too!

    1. meramatthews

      Thanks Joyce! The couch belonged to my grandmother. She kept it pristine thanks to a plastic covering, but now, thanks to me and my animals, it’s in tatters. I keep meaning to have it reupholstered, but I can’t pull the trigger. To be continued ….

  3. Emma @ The Happy Space Project

    Lol – great post!! I just posted an Instagram about this yesterday as I was noticing many a heated discussion about bookshelves (in general) and color blocking (specifically) in the blogosphere again. I was surprised how riled up people seem to get over book storage!!

    1. meramatthews

      Book storage is one of the most divisive issues facing our generation. Just kidding! You’re totally right, people (including me) have really strong feelings about how to organize books. Although now that I have no organizing principle at all I’m pretty sure I don’t have much of a platform for protest. Thanks!

  4. auntiepatch69

    I alphabetize my books by author until my husband goes on a jag and “re-organizes” – translation: puts books in willy-nilly. He likes to put them in by color and size. Ughhhhh………….It makes me crazy and I have to start all over again.

    1. meramatthews

      I had the exact same issue. Books came off the shelf, and then didn’t go back on in the same place. I used to get so frustrated about that! I guess that’s another upside to non-organized organization–marital harmony! 🙂

  5. Katy Gilmore

    Oh Mera, what a funny, fantastic post, and these shelves look so so wonderful! You know I’m not a big alphabitizer as the solution to finding a book – and used to always think that I just knew where the books are. But times go by, and things get stuffed here and there – and now I am hugely inspired to have a go at the bookshelves (blow out the dust and the old bording passes) and remember again how much I/we love each book (or donate those I/we do not). It is hard to make shelves and books work out (Norman would be proud of being such a yardstick of fitness), and you’ve done a masterly job. You have such a great sense of humor and we all benefit! Thanks! (And how wonderful to please the first responder critics!)

    1. meramatthews

      Chester reminded me that fire fighters spend most of their time in fire-prone squats and hovels, so it’s probably not much of a compliment, but I’ll take it! You would not believe how many boarding passes I pulled out–many of them from pre-TSA days–and it was fun to revisit old trips too! Thanks Katy!

  6. Laura (PA Pict)

    Your book shelves look really great. I like the odd knick-knack being placed among the books. I had so many books back home in Scotland that there was no room for anything other than books but I am hoping to scatter a few objects among them here in our Pennsylvanian home.

    When it comes to my fiction books, there are all in alphabetical order by author surname. It was absolutely necessary when I owned close to a thousand books but, having severely thinned out our collection in order to emigrate, I now just do it by choice. I would be able to put my hand to any book I thought of but the other members of the household require the alphabetical organisation. And I am OCD about alphabetical order. However, my non-fiction books are loosely arranged by subject matter (Roman history, art books, Scottish culture) and also by size since I have some over-size books that need to just be bundled together on the shelves that can cope with their height. I used to arrange the kids’ books by subject and by alphabet but the kids undid my organisation and that way madness lay so I had to just let it go.

    PS I love that you have your husband’s birth announcement in a frame. That’s awesome.

    1. meramatthews

      Thanks, Donna. It’s a lofty decorating goal: convincing emergency responders that my house is fit for human habitation and doesn’t need to be condemned! So far so good!

    1. meramatthews

      These days 99% of the books I buy are on my kindle (except for kids books). That makes (non)organizing the shelves possible–I don’t need to leave quite as much room for our future books! Thanks Diana!

  7. y2knina

    Oh, I’m quite sure Norman Mailer would agree that one of his books should be the one against which all others are measured!

    I actually have no book shelves in my house. My last one didn’t have any either. I sort of had to purge most of my books, and I got in the habit of passing along or donating books I purchased, but read mostly books from the library (and now, Kindle). I miss books! The ones I do have sort of get lumped together by subject and stuck on a shelf with a tchotchke (diving books with a funky statue of Poseiden and a shell, books about birds next to a glass birdhouse and a brass bird, etc. Yes, pretty edgy design stuff)! But the shelves are really deep and the books need … something with them or they get visually lost.

    Anyway, yours look great, and your post was funny. Maybe one day you can do a deep shelf how-to post, and I can buy more books!

  8. Carol Crump Bryner

    This is a post I could look at again and again. It’s so much fun to pursue someone else’s bookshelves to see what they read. Now I want to clean all mine off so I can see if there are any old dusty secrets hidden there. Love Chester’s birth announcement. I had an organizing principle at one time, but have no idea anymore what it is, since over the years we just put books where they fit. Now I’m inspired to do better. Thanks, Mera, for this entertaining read!

  9. michellet2013

    Your bookshelves look lovely Mera! I’d be embarrassed if you saw ours right now—books shelved two deep in many places—and a very doubtful sense of order. Thanks for inspiring me to do a little pruning (and dusting)!

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