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February 14, 2012 9:24 AM   Subscribe

To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self. The Paris Review towards a history of bookshelves.
posted by shakespeherian (19 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I agree with the general tone of this article (and love Pinker's house), but...organizing a bookshelf by subject is "very rigorous"? That's a sad commentary.
posted by DU at 9:37 AM on February 14, 2012

The recent MeTa with photos of MeFites' shelves: Show us your books! where commenters also explain how we organize them.

I agree with the general tone of this article (and love Pinker's house), but...organizing a bookshelf by subject is "very rigorous"? That's a sad commentary.

It made me chuckle because in French, "être très rigoureux" is a compliment, and is practically my byline at the office. "Fraula est TREEEES rigoureuse."

My books are organized by subject, language, and author... :o)
posted by fraula at 9:44 AM on February 14, 2012

Organizing a bookshelf by subject requires a much better bookshelf space to books ratio than I generally have. Maintaining that ratio is rigorous!
posted by Jahaza at 9:45 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

From the text of this post, I expected the article to be more about what the books on one's bookcase say about you—instead it seems to simpler, that merely having books on a bookcase says something about you. Both are true, although the latter point seems less interesting.

In 1999, I hosted a small conference for colleagues, and afterward we went to my house for a pizza party to use up the small remaining balance in the conference's account. It was no surprise that my colleagues spent a lot of time looking at the books on my bookcase. Back then, members of my profession relied heavily on printed reference sources, and while they're not something that one could physically show off normally, it's the kind of thing that would definitely attract interest. And we're a bookish lot in general.

I haven't looked at most of those references in a long time, since there's better stuff online, and I've gotten rid of at least half of them.
posted by adamrice at 9:48 AM on February 14, 2012

Heh. I was just thinking of asking my students should I'll ever have any, that is, to tell me about how they arrange their bookshelves.

Mine (wooden, black, built by my grandfather about fifty years ago) are generally intentionally disorganized with Estonian books mixed with English and Russian (and the odd Italian one), philosophical and scientific texts with fiction, hardcovers with magazines etc. There are, however, some places where order has prevailed: my Routledge Classics books are almost all kept in the same shelf; magazines tend to stack together, fiction tends to accumulate in the bedroom and nonfiction near my writing desk. In other words, there is method to my madness.

Someday, when the number of books I have becomes overwhelming (at the moment, I only have about 20-25 meters of shelf space filled with books), I might sort them by subject or alphabetically, but until then, I think I'll keep to this (lack of) system.
posted by daniel_charms at 9:49 AM on February 14, 2012

My shelf:books ratio is about .8. Maybe lower. All the books stacked on top and on tables and by the bed are of the subject "New" or "To Be Read".
posted by DU at 9:50 AM on February 14, 2012

In 1999, I hosted a small conference for colleagues, and afterward we went to my house for a pizza party to use up the small remaining balance in the conference's account. It was no surprise that my colleagues spent a lot of time looking at the books on my bookcase.

What totally weirds me out is the times when I've had people over for, like, hours, and they didn't check out my books, and, worse yet, never even glanced at the record and CD shelves despite being surrounded by them.

On my planet, making a beeline to inspect the cultural artifacts is the first thing you do upon entering someone's domicile (after wiping your feet).
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:04 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm at a point now where I'm organizing books by how I can slot them into the shelves. So far I've managed to keep fiction authors together, and roughly clump them by genre, but shelf space is at such a premium that I recently had to break my sci fi into two seperate locations, top and bottom of a four shelf case. Quiveringly reshelved apart, I felt a bit like I'd broken up a family.

Non fiction is harder, because I like to order things conceptually. I haven't the space for Dewey or LoC classification, but I do like to clump the humanities together the cultural studies stuff and the anthropology stuff not too far away, and the histories and biographies not too far from them, and the non fiction shelving is a mish mash because I can usually bend some sort of justification together.

The bookcases breed and line my hallway and any space I can manage to cram a set of shelves. I have a few Billies, some half size ones I inherited from a former housemate, and a few odd home made shelves, oddly enough side by side, with Dr. Jilder's science reference books on one set and my occult references on another, like siblings that just aren't really capable of talking any more but that like to stay at least a little in touch nonetheless.

I was at a house party recently and they had no bookshelves. It was like being on Mars.
posted by Jilder at 10:12 AM on February 14, 2012

I haven't looked at most of those references in a long time, since there's better stuff online, and I've gotten rid of at least half of them.

It used to be de rigeur for everyone to have a file cabinet in their offices for their personal archives of journal articles. They were closely-guarded, locked when out of the office, jealously-coveted. It was a major sign of favour to be awarded the literature archive of a retiring colleague. Losing a reprint to a long-term "loan" was a significant expense in both dollars and time to re-order from the journal or author. References from obscure journals not in the library collection were pure gold.

The web changed all that. What matters now is one's Bibtex/Endnote file and we swap those around like pens. Cheap pens. File cabinets and cubbyholes are being evicted from the researchers' offices. There are still the odd stacks of printouts, but those are transitory now, for reading at home or during a boring meeting, fleeting copies of the "real" electronic article.

People are printing less every year though: our printer paper budget has apparently been in freefall for a decade. I can see a time when even these remnants disappear---IT is allowing tablets for the first time this fiscal year.
posted by bonehead at 10:26 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

After moving about 10 times in 10 years, my book collection has been ruthlessly pruned and re-homed (my custom bookplate reads "From the distributed library of Rock T. Steady") such that I am down to two "half" IKEA Expedits and one "quarter" Expedit, plus a little overflow. Since embracing ebooks, I have only accumulated a handful of paper books in the past couple of years, so I don't think my collection will grow much past that in the forseeable future, even though my digital book collection now has a similar number of titles. All of those shelves are upstairs in my den/study, such that occasional visitors to my home might never see them. I must tell you that it gives me not a little anxiety that people might judge me on my "lack" of books. I also have no DVDs or CDs on display (having moved everything to digital formats years ago). I wonder how we will make these little judgements and assessments of each other once we can no longer assume that no physical media means no media at all?
posted by Rock Steady at 10:29 AM on February 14, 2012

When visiting a strange house or apartment for the first time, I used to look at the bookshelves. Now I look at the medicine cabinets.

Also, I get paid to shelve books alphabetically and by subject at work. I'm not doing it at home for free.
posted by jonmc at 10:30 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I went through an acquisition phase and for years I held onto every book I'd ever read, but when I moved for the last time a few years ago I got rid of the vast majority of them in favor of books I haven't read yet. Now when I am looking for something new and interesting to read, I can choose from pretty much anything on my shelves. It's much better than looking at a wall of titles I've already read, and when I finish one, I pass it on and make room for something new!
posted by headnsouth at 12:16 PM on February 14, 2012

Strangely enough my books are arraigned according to subject:

Science Fiction
posted by Splunge at 12:26 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

My spelling OTOH is not arranged at all.
posted by Splunge at 12:27 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

My parents have a "diagnostic bookshelf" which is strategically planted to be the one people see when they enter the house. It contains dictionaries and other books in at least 10 languages, a collector's edition Andrew Wyeth art book which has never been out of its cardboard home since its purchase in the early '70s, other sorts of books "we want people to know that we read," two stuffed Nicaraguan toads playing the marimbas and a sixth-grade hand puppet of Albert Schweitzer who lives in a brass urn.
posted by Madamina at 1:10 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

This post inspired me to organize my shelves. I had to move my books out of the way quickly because of a leeking roof, and they were languishing in a closet, but I decided to organize my books again. One section is poetry (alphabetized by author, with anthologies at the end). Then there's fiction, separated into read and unread and alphabetized by author. Then there's academic works, separated into read and unread and alphabetized by author, except for biographies, which are alphabetized by subject, and essay anthologies at the end. Oh, and books I have on loan, they have a section of their own.

I've been putting this off for a while, thanks for the inspiration, shakespeherian!
posted by Kattullus at 4:11 PM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

To look where I live would tell you a lie about me; I look like one of those non-readers who don't own books because they have no use for them. Only a few of my books compete with another person's duct tape mended, vintage engineering textbooks; paperback Clancys; coffee table volumes with glossy pictures of armoured tanks and fighter jets; an assortment of beloved books from his childhood including a few picture books; non-fiction reads like Guns, Germs and Steel; and serious sci-fi and war stories, in hard and soft cover.

That's two IKEA bookshelves, filled up in an apartment where space is at a premium and you'd hardly know that I'm the faster reader, who devours novels in a day and spent large segments of her childhood, thumb planted in her mouth and the full focus of her attention fused with full bore aspie obsession, often times the same book, but just as likely a fresh one gleaned from my mother's enormous library. In my family, literally needing a room for all your surplus books was normal and hers overflowed into the rest of the house so I was able to note that we had need for a bookcase in every room but the bathroom.

For my partner, a novel is a long, stretched process. The words need to be chewed and digested, mostly in half hour increments before bed, in a fashion that means Guns of the South is taking a month when it's only two fingers wide. He thinks re-reading a book you're familiar with is an absurdity; everything he owns is taking up space with no plan to read it again. Almost everything I read gets rapidly shuttled out again afterwards, into a big box scrawled with "FREE" or back to the public library from whence it came. Anything I wanted to keep is in a box in my parent's place, and I'm increasingly feeling its a sort of cargo-cult to long term large, fixed space ownership and I can probably donate them too. Basically if I kept everything I read I'd have to stack them up like the Collyer brothers so everything gets cycled out, were as everything he's ever read, barring school stuff, would fit into my mother's library.
posted by Phalene at 5:02 PM on February 14, 2012

Actually, I ended up rearranging. I took all the read books of fiction and academic nature and put them all in one place, sorted alphabetically by author (and subject, in case of biography). I left the unread books sorted into fiction and academic works, but then separated them by language.
posted by Kattullus at 7:19 AM on February 15, 2012

We are desperately in need of bookshelves and plan to build some in to the living room. For now, we make do with the following: small wire bookshelf in my home office with some contemporary fiction. Salvaged Ikea bookshelf in the guest room with childrens' books, fairy tales, some comic books, and a row of general-interest non-fiction (mostly food writing and history.) Downstairs there are two large bookshelves, one for each of us, with our most-beloved books, organized loosely by category. Coffee table is totally overflowing and stacked high with everything we've read in the last year or are going to read in the next year.

I like having books. I do prune out my collection, but that has me getting rid of oh, maybe a dozen books every couple of years.
posted by desuetude at 9:56 PM on February 17, 2012

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