Three Things I Learned After Organizing My Books By Color

April 7, 2016 at 6:22 am Leave a comment

My view on living with (and without) books has shifted drastically in the last few years as I’ve gone from being a total book packrat to someone actually advocating a minimalist approach to book ownership.

Just in the past two years, I’ve been forced to live without the vast majority of my books and found that it wasn’t the end of the world. I’ve had to move so many times that actually owning every book I read isn’t just impractical, it’s unappealing. I’ve come to love using the public library — a side effect of leaving New York and thus having readier access to libraries than expansive used book stores — and, to my utter shock, I’ve come to feel more at ease in spaces that aren’t brimming-to-overflowing with books.

As I continue along this strange path, I recently stared at a haphazard bookcase of fiction in my childhood bedroom. Once upon a time, it had been meticulously organized by author’s last name. But, since I hadn’t lived near home for over a decade, the bookcase had become rather neglected, the victim of previous raids and casual additions, with books hoisted into the general space they were supposed to be and others just piled up vertically, plus stuff added for extra chaos.

Before Reorganization, or what happens when you more-or-less abandon a bookcase for 12 years.

Before Reorganization, or what happens when you more-or-less abandon a bookcase for 12 years.

It made me cringe to look at it and, the more I thought about it, the more radical I felt. Finally, I had enough and decided to pull the trigger on the most dramatic reorganization I could think of: as an experiment, I would organize these books by color.

At such a departure, past versions of myself would have, in no particular order, screamed, swooned, and tried to bodily restrain me. Whenever I saw books organized by color before, I would sniff and wonder how such people ever found anything. What nutters! You can’t look up a book under “blue”! (Did I mention I come from a family of librarians?)

After Reorganization

After Reorganization

But I went for it anyway. I had somehow become someone who no longer found clutter cozy and preferred neatness to shelves overflowing with a mixture of books, bric-a-brac, and fanciful bookends. A few short hours later when I was done, I couldn’t believe the change — and not just the visible one. I’d discovered three big things about my books, myself, and what “organized” can mean.

1. How restful!
I don’t think I realized how much subconscious unrest my books were causing until I reordered them by color. Suddenly, the whole room felt more peaceful and less cluttered. It has become a space I look forward to spending time in, rather than one I pass time in by necessity.

2. How do I use my books?
Reorganizing my books gave me some real insight into how I use my books. I had always considered my books like a public library, something that needed to be organized universally so anyone could wander into my room and find what they were looking for. I thought that organizing my novels by author’s last name made it easier to find books, for me and for any visitors.

But, post-reorganization, I realized that was never a realistic representation of how I actually use my books. Rare is the time I have any visitors looking for anything; more frequently, I am asked for a recommendation and I rummage about to find the best book to present to a friend.

And, for me personally, I’m more a browser than a seeker. If I’m looking for something to read, or re-read, I very rarely go in saying to myself “Now, where is that particular book? Let me find it by author’s last name!” More likely, I skim my eyes over spines and something will strike me as just the ticket. The color-organization method is actually even better for browsing because it makes interesting bedfellows and suggests unusual pairings.

3. Rewiring my book-brain
The hardest thing has been rewiring my brain for how to find a book if I am looking for something specific. In my newly colorized system, when you want to find a book, you have to think “what does my copy look like?” rather than “what is the last name of the author?” It’s actually a more brain-teasing question and I like the little mental exercise I get in visualizing the book I’m looking for and then fetching it easily rather than thinking, “ah, Peters, let’s go to ‘P’…ah, there’s Pamuk, now Perry, and…Pullman, no, gone too far, back to…Peters! There!”



That said, there are things I don’t like about the color system. Most particularly, I don’t like how it breaks up series of novels. All my Anne of Green Gables books are now scattered throughout the color spectrum, instead of being easily lined up in reading order. Same goes for Harry Potter and my Amelia Peabody books. Would a newbie reader to any of these series have the first idea of where to start given this organization? No, probably not. Color-organizing has made series significantly less accessible.

And there are still types of books I could never see myself organizing by color. Mostly, I am too devoted to the thematic clumping of my nonfiction books to ever disrupt them with color organizing, even though doing so would make the shelf feel more aesthetically restful. I’m a historian and the organization of books by time periods and topics feels comfortable and tidy to me. These are books I more frequently reference specifically, rather than browse to read, so having them in a particular order matters to me.

Still, never say never is my new mantra to books. My views on them have changed so much and so radically in a relatively short amount of time that I just can’t predict what I’ll be doing with them in the future. And, in the meantime, I get to have fun experimenting with all news ways to organize and live among my books!

What about you, dear readers? How do you organize your books? And have you ever organized by color? Share your book organization plans and tips below!


Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , .

Kushiel’s Legacy series, Jacqueline Carey ‘The Collector’ by Nora Roberts

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