Ten Ways to Organize Your Bookshelf

July 20, 2017 | 18 5 min read

I recently moved to a new apartment, which gave me an excuse to pursue, without guilt, my favorite procrastination activity: reorganizing my bookshelf. It also forced me to go through each and every one of my books and ask hard questions like, am I really ever going to read The Forsyte Saga? (Answer: It’s been up there for 10 years, but maybe? I kept it.) Or: will I ever reread Middlemarch, and if so, will I want to use this yellowed paperback with a taped spine that I got for free off of a stoop? (Answer: No. If a person returns to Middlemarch, they deserve a fresh copy, possibly a reissue with interesting new cover art.)

covercoverOn my old shelves, my books were organized into four broad genres: fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poetry. Fiction was arranged by date published, nonfiction by subject area, and plays and poetry were not in any particular order. On my new shelf, I stuck with my broad genres, and within each one, I kept things simple and organized everything alphabetically. Boring, but effective. But part of the fun of reorganizing your books is considering all your options, so here are 10 organizational strategies for the next time you find yourself in the throes of moving, decluttering, or, if you’re anything like me, procrastinating.

1. Chronologically, by Date Published
As I mentioned above, this is how I have arranged the majority of my books for the past decade. It’s kind of a pretentious way to shelve your collection, and to make it even more pretentious, I got the idea secondhand, from a literary memoir. (I can’t remember whose memoir anymore.) But this method ended up working for me for two reasons: 1) the act of putting my books on the shelf in order helped me to remember history, and to get a better sense of which writers were writing and publishing at the same time, and perhaps influencing one another; and 2) when I add books to my collection, they’re usually brand-new, published recently, and it’s easier to just plunk them down on the end of the shelf rather than finding a place for them alphabetically.

2. By Color
If you have a large number of books, this is an extremely silly way to organize your bookshelf. I know, because I tried it once. I have a good memory for covers and I thought it would be an intuitive way to find my books—and would look pretty, too. What I didn’t realize is that the spines of books are sometimes a different color from the front covers. I found myself spending a lot of time looking for, say, a book I was certain was red, only to discover that its spine was blue. But, if you really love putting things in rainbow order, and you have a small number of books that you know well, this could be a visually striking way to arrange your shelves.

3. Artful Piles
coverI’ve seen this in design magazines and once when I was visiting a fancy Nolita loft, where tall stacks of art books were arranged in uneven piles on a long bench. It reminded me—not unpleasantly—of the scene in The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway visits Gatsby’s library and discovers that none of the pages of the books have been cut for reading. So if you have a lot of beautiful books that are just for show, artful piles might be the way to go.

4. By Subject/Genre
If you’re a collector of books on a particular subject, or a big fan of a particular genre, this is probably the most satisfying way to arrange your books. It’s also a good way to organize your books if you don’t have a good memory for titles and authors. I group my nonfiction books by subject because I don’t always remember nonfiction authors and titles as readily as writers of fiction. My subjects are: History, Criticism/Literary Interest, New York City, and Art/Design. (I debated giving memoirs, letters, and journals their own nonfiction subject area but ultimately decided to shelve them with fiction, since in many cases, I’m most interested in the memoirs of authors whose fiction I admire.) A handful of my books don’t fit into any of those categories, and they are stacked up vertically in a miscellaneous pile, near the art books.

5. Geographically
I’ve never seen anyone organize books this way, but why not? The question is, when you’re organizing geographically, do you go by the author’s place of birth or the particular place that an author is associated with? For example, would Joseph Mitchell be a New York writer or a southern writer? What about Ernest Hemingway? The Midwest, Florida Keys, or Spain? Another option would be to organize by the geographical setting of a particular book, which is somewhat more definitive, though many books are located in multiple locations and/or fictional places. A compromise might be to devote a section on your bookshelf to one particular geographical area.

6. In Order of Importance and/or Goodness
This could be a good way to start debates among guests. It also could be a good way to kill a rainy afternoon.

7. Secretively
If you don’t want anyone to know what you’re reading and/or if you don’t care about being able to find your books, you can place them on the shelves so that the spines are facing the wall. This will give your shelves a soothing, monochromatic look. It will also make it difficult for people to borrow books from you.

8. Alphabetically
This is the obvious, most boring method, but it might be the friendliest, too. Anyone looking for a book in your library will be able to find it. It’s kind of interesting, too, to see who ends up next to each other.

9. Randomly
You don’t have to organize your books at all. You can shelve them in no particular order, like Pamela Paul, New York Times Book Review editor: “What I like about that disorder is that it allows that element of surprise and serendipity.” Personally, I couldn’t stand to do this at home, but I do enjoy perusing the strange mix of books that you find in beach houses and summer cottages, for the way it always leads to an unexpected choice.

10. Autobiographically
covercoverCredit for this idea must be given to the film High Fidelity (based on the Nick Hornby’s novel by the same name). Post break-up, a lovelorn record store owner, Rob, decides to reorganize his record collection autobiographically. He arranges his records in an order that only he can understand, the key to which are his life experiences and personal obsessions. He explains to a friend, “If I want to find the song “Landslide,” by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile, but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”

It could be argued that every bookshelf, like every piece of writing, is autobiographical, even with its veneer of objective organization, but I admit I can see the nostalgic appeal in consciously organizing my books according to the stages of my life. I’m not sure how I would end up grouping my books, but it would be interesting to think back on all the people—family members, teachers, friends, writers—who have influenced my reading, the classes I’ve taken, the authors I’ve met, the booklists I’ve clipped, and the summers I’ve whiled away. I’d also have to reckon with some of the less flattering aspects of my bookshelf, like the fact that a certain number of books will always remain unread, and another, larger percentage will never be reread because my hope of returning to them “one day” has nothing to do with a desire to reengage with the author, but instead, to return to a certain period of my life, a frame of mind, or even a particular person or place. To shelve autobiographically is to embark on a journey of self-examination, which is why I’m saving it for when I undergo a midlife crisis—or maybe when I move to a bigger apartment.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and thelmaandalicesubstack.com. Read more at hannahgersen.com or sign up for her newsletter here.


  1. Sadly, after my last move, and then rearranging and redecorating my tiny house, my couple thousand books have no system of organisation. The best I can do is separate fiction from nonfiction, although I do have a couple shelves for short story collections. Also, my Willa Cather and Somerset Maugham enjoy pride of place on the on their own shelf. Luckily, like a good hoarder of books I seem to know where everything is!

  2. I have too many books to arrange them in any way. It would take more room than I have in my apartment to take them off shelves and put them back again.

  3. I read a lot of classics, and I keep those first divided by century, then alphabetically by author. Popular fiction alphabetized by author. Nonfiction has no particular organization.

  4. Good and useful paper, thanks to the author! In general I think that functionality should be the leading consideration in organizing your bookshelf, followed by aesthetic or other considerations.

    I have a bilingual library/bookshelf, roughly 60% of my books are in Hungarian, 40% in English-and I keep them separated.
    The Hungarian portion has much more nonfiction, a lot of poetry , and is subdivided also in Transylvanian Hungarian(where I am original from) and General Hungarian literature, along with fiction I have works of history, cultural studies, art books, albums.
    The English portion has professional(medical) subset, reference books, dictionaries/thesauruses/vocabularies separated, along with fiction( not much poetry…), and a lot of history-general and cultural, social history(American and universal), politics, albums ,and art books. I am running out of space, and I have double-spaced shelves already , I have to start trimming my collection.

    I think we should mention also our “digital bookshelves” too, with our iBooks and Kindle collections. They are organized by the programs-according to topics, subjects (iBooks), or alphabetically by author, or date of purchase(Kindle).Initially I used these to by quality thrillers,light reading , but soon I went into quality fiction and nonfiction too with same interest and written in English -only. So, along my cca 2,000 hardcopy books I have cca 300 electronic ones, easier to keep, not in need for dusting,but also in need of organizing&updating…

  5. My library used to be arranged by language (popular fiction) and nonfiction: art books, dictionaries and language study books, work related books on separate shelves. So far that is the best system for me.
    Now I tried a more fun way for the collection of fictional books as they are now in my living room and arranged them by color.. Definitely more visually pleasing, but harder to find a specific book if required..

  6. I arrange mine geographically – although I don’t go so far as organising it by regions, more by countries. So I have a section on French literature (both in French and in translation, plus biographies of French people, plus non-fiction etc.), another on German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) and so on. The Latin Americans and Spanish/Portuguese authors are all together, because I don’t have that many, but if I did, I would start separating them by countries.

  7. By category, which differ widely. Bibles, prayer books, and historical family treasures; Gardening; Photo albums; classics; first editions; fiction and non-; travel; etc. Most prominent? The most beautiful, like the Waverly Classics and Roses. And within them, by decreasing height, pulled neatly to the shelves’ edges. Hey! I volunteered in my junior high library, where an inspirational librarian taught kids to love and respect precious books. My author office bookshelf is arranged by what I used last–like books on craft, poisons, police procedurals. It’s a mess that spills onto the floor!

  8. The fallout of having completed a PhD in English Lit is that I reallt do have thousands of books. Most of them are in the basement. The vast collection of fiction stacked against one wall. My 20th century British authors whose work I collect (Tolkien, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Salman Rushdie, among others are on the bookshelves in the basement. The bookshelves in the living room contain mostly contemporary fiction, some poetry – all on its own shelf – and a smattering of drama. The one bookcase in the dining room contains grammars, anthologies and dictionaries because I used to tutor students in my home and liked to have reference books close to hand. Within each of thise bookshelves I do often organize books by the colors of their spines simply to minimize visual distraction. The master bedroom and upstairs hall contains my husband’s books with no apparent organizational scheme.

  9. Mine are arranged geographically as well, but like Marina, only by country or larger region, depending how many I have in each group. As far as authors associated with more than one location, I base it on the location I most associate them with.

  10. I organize by author. If the writer has a series, the books are shelved in publication date order. Although I have more than 2,000 books, a lot of them are represented by a few authors, so the shelves look neat to me. I also organize by subject, where it is more likely that the books will be by a variety of authors. Non-fiction is on higher shelves, as I re-read those books less frequently. My favorite books are shelved at eye-level. When I decide to re-read the work of a writer, whether that work includes series or stand-alones or both, I read them in publication date order so I can follow the growth of the author. The only exceptions in shelving are for oversized books, like the Complete Sherlock Holmes, the Annotated Alice in Wonderland, and similar compilations.

  11. I’m old school, lol. I used the Dewey decimal system on the non-fiction. And alphabetical for the fiction. With the exception of x rated books that are on the top shelf, away from little hands. And the kids section, bottom shelf.

  12. Hey Hannah,

    Great ideas. I really think ordering books by color and size works best for me. Last week, I spent half a day in reworking my floating bookshelf. I think people really care about the first impression rather than convenience(being pretentious :))In the first row, I’ve placed red color, green and yellow in the second row, white and black in the 3rd row, and kind of similar color combinations in the following rows. Previously, it was arranged based on genre . To be honest, after this simple rework, I got great appreciations. I cannot upload an image here, or else I would have posted one .

  13. Other than finally achieving independence, my favourite part of moving into my first apartment was setting up my brick and wood bookshelves. Thirty-six years, one apartment, and two houses later I’m still seeking the perfect arrangement. I have bookcases in my upstairs study and downstairs rec room (the latter which has a framed sign on the wall saying “This Library is My Mancave”.) I’ve yet to sort everything perfectly, but I enjoy the ongoing project.

    Anyway, my novels tend to be sorted alphabetically by author, and if I have more than one book by a writer they’re sorted alphabetically by title. I have a lot of non-fiction books, especially history. Those are “sub-sorted” by subject matter (e.g.-WWII, Vietnam, India, the Tudors etc.).

    You can save space by laying groups of books (for instance, all my John Irving novels) in horizontal stacks. Maybe it’s just me, but I also think it’s aesthetically pleasing.

  14. Because of space Issues my romance, fiction, mystery’s are arranged in alphabetical order with colored tabs on the spine so I know which books to check when I am looking for a certain genre. I have a shelf in my garage which has a cover in front of it for my cook books, they are arrange by sets, Southern Living, Taste of Home, etc, I also have table top books in my living room. The only down fall is even though I used my Kindle I am still buying books sand the space is becoming less, and less.

  15. I personally like to use an organization of my books by subject. It works well for me, since I focus on nonfiction. The only fiction I have is a few series of fantasy novels. Looking at my bookcase I find that it is really tailored to my specific tastes. I am a hard core fantasy nerd. My book sections include new age, psychology, fantasy novels, music, fantasy art, art instruction and miscellaneous. Practicality is very important to me. I don’t want to sacrifice it just for the shallow value of making stuff look pretty. My bookshelfs look good as is. I don’t like arranging books by color or turning them them spine inward. I think it is so stupid. If I organize books by subjects with visible spines, I can easily pick books for reference or reading pleasure. Other methods that interest me is organizing books by history or geography. I think that can work. I think of it as just a subset of organizing by subject. If one is really struggling, I recommend going to a library or bookstore. Look around at the organized sections and take notes. Those places organize books very well.

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