On organizing a domestic library

I personally find that for domestic [library] purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey. -Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

It surprises people when I tell them that I don’t categorize my books alphabetically or by Dewey Decimal or something. I used to arrange them alphabetically, but I quit doing that because books that I felt should be together would be too far apart. Now I group books kind of randomly according to authors that “go together” in my mind. Tolkien and Rowling and Paolini (if that kid sees this, I bet I just made his day) and Taylor are all on the same shelf (C.S. Lewis would be there as well, except we have paperback copies of his books, so they reside on a different shelf). Anne Lamott and Lauren Winner and Madeleine L’Engle keep close company. Some of my favorite fiction, like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and the Mary Russell series (new book out June 21!) reside on the other end of that same shelf. In the middle are books that I like that Mike got for me – Evensong and Pride, Prejudice, and Jasmin Field, to name a few. Speaking of which, where’s Jane Austen? The leatherbound copy of her six novels is on the shelf above the fantasy authors with some other hardcover editions of favorite books – Anne of Green Gables, for one.

There aren’t just my books to consider – Mike’s got all his Puzo, and he’s the one who read Eragon and Shadowmancer. We also keep Holes in the living room because he counts it among his favorites. We’ve also got his Far Side set (next to my my Beatles Anthology).

The bottom shelf is the catch-all shelf – children’s books and Cold Mountain and The Jane Austen Bookclub (which, now that I think about it, might like to live next to Jane herself, so I’ll have to remedy that). The other bottom shelf (we have two big bookcases that we bought when we moved – the only “grownup” furniture we bought for the new house) has paperbacks of C.S. Lewis and some other spiritual writings. And I haven’t even touched on the bookshelf in the guest bedroom – the one with all my favorite old paperback copies of Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet and the Lord Peter books and Christy Miller and the entire Anne series and dozens of other books I can’t part with (and don’t have nicer copies of).

I don’t use books as decoration like some people do. We were at Mike’s boss’s house (an interior designer, so you better believe I was looking around for ideas) the other day and he sets piles of books out for decoration. I care more about what’s in the books than how they look, although I am much more careful than I used to be about things like turning down corners and breaking spines. I buy hardcovers now, when I used to buy paperbacks, and I try to take good care of them, but compared to a lot of people, I’m not a big book-buyer anyway. (Mike would disagree, but I contend that the majority of the books I own have been purchased for me or with giftcards. I am not the kind of person who walks in a bookstore and has to come out with something.) In that way, I couldn’t necessarily relate to Mr. Hornby’s constant book-buying (though part of that, no doubt, has to do with the fact that he’s got a heck of a lot more money than I do), but I loved his thoughts on how one book flows into another (I personally took notes on several books he mentioned that I think I should look into).

I don’t group my books like he does, by Trivial Pursuit categories. I group them by how they mean something to me. It’s a system that doesn’t make much sense to anyone but me, but if you ask me where a book is, I’m pretty likely to be able to tell you. And I guess that’s what matters.

(Our CDs, for the record, are alphabetized. That’s all Mike’s doing.)

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