Clean Shelf: How To Revamp Your Book Collection

Atmospherically lit bookcase.

Though summer is drawing to a close as traces of fall foliage make their first tentative appearances and students scramble to finish their back-to-school shopping, it’s never too late to do some spring cleaning.

While books are easily my most-loved possessions, I personally tend to find that they’re the first to get slighted, organization-wise, when I feel like I have a million other responsibilities begging for my attention. My fantasies consist of the type of library à la the one that Beast gives Belle in Beauty and the Beast, with arched ceilings and impeccable shelves, where there’s a place for every book and every book has its place, and where sparkling volumes stand sentinel over vast stores of knowledge and imagination.

As it is, my reality is condensed to two bookshelves, so cluttered that new additions clamor for space among established favorites and resign to stacking themselves in haphazard arrays wherever there’s room.

I want better for my books. Because the ones I’ve loved enough for them to earn a space in my bookshelf are worlds I want to visit again and again, stories of love and bravery and resilience that have made an indelible mark on my heart. They deserve not to be cast aside or shoved away in dark corners. They’re a museum of the ideas and tales that have inspired my mind, and they should be displayed as such.

At the same time, I know there are books from high school English classes and obscure college courses that I don’t plan on reading ever again. Those I’ve kept partly because I’m just too lazy to get rid of them, and also because I can’t help but feel that to do so would be to personally affront them. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the truth that just because I love books, doesn’t mean I have to love all books, and it’s okay to clean house — or, should I say, shelf — every once in a while. With that in mind, I offer the following tips for curating your collection:

Decide Which Books You’d Like to Donate, Sell & Keep

Maybe you received a book from a relative ten Christmases ago that you always promised yourself you’d read, for their sake, but never got around to because it’s not something you would have picked for yourself. Maybe you promised yourself you’d read more classic literature, but after buying out that section at Barnes & Noble, decided to be more honest with your love of sci-fi, and haven’t touched them since. Maybe you realize you still own that random book from that second-semester sophomore year of college class that somehow got forgotten in the back corner of your shelf. Or maybe you read a book and really enjoyed it, but don’t feel like you need to revisit it, and feel like you could probably have saved some money by getting it at the library instead.

We open our closets and experience little shame in donating the clothing we never wear, but books seem more substantive and so we’re hesitant to apply the same rules to them. If you’re serious about creating a personalized library that really holds some significance for you, it’s time to be ruthless. And I don’t mean you should rip books off the shelves and tear pages out of them — that’s a bit extreme, don’t you think? But ask yourself if you honestly have any intention of reading those books you’ve never gotten around to, or do you just like the look of them on your shelf?

Donate the ones you feel you can part with to a friend who might enjoy them, to a library, or any other donation centers where people might be in need of a good book. If it won’t serve you, let it serve someone else. There’s no shame in that.

If you’ve done that and you still really can’t bring yourself to part with the overwhelming majority of titles in your library, but you also definitely can’t fit them all on your shelf and you know there are some you won’t want to read as often as others, consider filing them away by genre in Rubbermaid bins and tucking them under your bed or in a storage closet. That way, they’re out of sight but still easily accessible should you have a hankering for them.

Elevate The Visual Standards For Your Bookshelf

Once you’ve decided which books are here to stay, you can revamp your shelf by organizing them in a way that is visually appealing. Having worked in a bookstore, I’ve gained a definite sense of appreciation for the ways in which books are arranged to make them most enticing for shoppers (that’s right: blame all your impulse buys on the store staff who manipulate you by displaying books in specific ways — you can’t help it if you feel like you need them all!). And speaking as someone who just likes to have beautiful surroundings, I’ll say it is nice to spend a little extra time giving your bookshelf a signature aesthetic. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Organize books alphabetically by author so you can easily find what you’re looking for. And if you want to get really fancy, organize by genre and then place books alphabetically by author within each.
  • If you have any yearbooks or large coffee-table type books in your shelf, place these on the bottom and shelve books according to size as you go up (with the shortest books on the top shelf).
  • If you have shelves containing books of multiple sizes, line them up from shortest to tallest, or consider “pyramiding” them so that the tallest books are in the center and the shortest ones are at each end.
  • Organize books by color, the way some people organize wardrobe pieces in their closets.
  • Take some thicker books (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter) and turn them so they’re face out rather than spine out. Your bookshelf just became a mini bookstore.

Now, step back and take a deep sigh of relief. Doesn’t that feel better? Now you’ve upped your shelf game, you can see everything on it, and it looks beautiful to boot. You’re welcome.

Photo Credit: moz278 via Compfight cc

About the author

Sarah Zentner

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