How to Organize a Bookshelf

While there are many theories about how to organize a bookshelf, I prefer a more personal and creative, but perhaps less aesthetic, approach.

Organizing a bookshelf is truly the process of organizing one’s brain. There are many theories on the web about how to organize a bookshelf. One can organize a bookshelf alphabetically, by size, or by color, but I find these strategies require far too much discipline. Discipline may matter when it comes to personal training or meeting deadlines, but when it comes to creativity, dreaming, and exploring, nothing ruins the creative mind faster than discipline.

I prefer to organize my bookshelf with love, which is to say, the books I love sit closer to my desk, while the remaining titles sit arranged by subject. But, entropy is constant, and every several months my books disorganize themselves, requiring me to re-organize my shelves. So, on a week where I was especially keen on procrastinating, I began by emptying the bookshelves my boyfriend had so lovingly constructed for me, and got to the hard work of organizing my bookshelf and organizing my mind.

A Song So Divine That My Fantasy Won't Sing It Back to Me. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
A Song So Divine That My Fantasy Won’t Sing It Back to Me. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

After putting my books into various stacks: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, science, psychology, philosophy, self-growth, and books I wished I’d written, I found I still had four whole shelves of unrealized ambitions. These were books I never got around to reading. I am embarrassed to name some of the titles on this shelf. I will spare myself the humility. In graduate school I’d been assigned some, and for reasons of mental health or exhaustion, I never got around to reading. Well meaning friends gave me some. Others I purchased in ambitious seasons.

The act of purchasing a book is an act of limitless hope. It’s a commitment. It’s a statement to oneself: I will have leisure time, and I will use it wisely. My shelves of unrealized ambitions are a testament to my self-delusion that I am the possessor of infinite time.

Some ambitions can be set aside. I have an entire shelf devoted only to rock climbing guides, filled with lines I’d once dreamed of climbing. Now, all my climbing guides sit next to Milan Kundera’s Immortality because I’d need immortality to climb all the lines of my dreams and also immortality to properly read Immortality. In the period of my life where I’d quixotically purchased these guides, my ex-husband had tried to read to me in the evening. I know I have heard Kundera’s Immortality in its entirety, but I don’t remember it.

I’d fall asleep as soon as he started reading. I only remember an old woman in a pool, which isn’t impressive at all. It is the novel’s opening image. And yet, somehow the memory of my ex-husband reading to me even as I slept touches me as a supreme act of love, which is to care and attend to someone even when they may not always care or attend to you.

In my life I have cared too much as a noun, and cared too little as a verb. I’m working on it.

I have a whole bookshelf devoted entirely to poetry, with criticism on the bottom shelf because critics are bottom feeders. My boyfriend corrected me. They are guppies, he said. Maybe critics are guppies.

When I was a child, I had a fish called guppy who was a bottom feeder. I loved him. One day, he disappeared. I kept looking for him in the water as it grew murkier and murkier. I moved the plants and shifted the rocks, and the water grew dim, but never found guppy. Eventually, the tank grew so dirty, we had to clean it. My mother sifted out the plants and the goldfish, but she didn’t find guppy, either. He must have been hiding. Where could he have gone? Weeks passed. Months. No guppy. The tank grew dirty again. When my mother cleaned the tank a second time, she disassembled the water filter, and we found guppy trapped in the tiniest of hoses that connected to the air filer. He was so small, he’d gotten sucked in and died there, trapped.

Perhaps this is an omen that I shouldn’t get into literary criticism, or maybe it’s just a warning against keeping fish tanks. Let the omen stand, regardless.

I put my children’s books into stacks on the floor and think about guppy. My most treasured book is The Little Red Caboose. My grandmother read me that story over and over. “The little red caboose always came last.” I can still hear her emphasis on the word last. In the story, the little red caboose saves the day. The story is an allegory about how the small forgotten things in the world, the things we easily overlook, are the most important. It was my grandmother’s most important lesson to me. It is okay to be last, okay to be forgotten. Okay to be small. It’s okay to read to someone who has fallen asleep. It is okay to leave some books unread. It’s okay to be forgotten.

That little golden book sits on a shelf with all the other books that formed me: the essays of David Foster Wallace and Joan Didion. The letters of Emily Dickinson. The fiction of Leo Tolstoy. Virginia Woolf. Frankenstein.

Some of the books I once thought formed me, actually didn’t form me at all. They merely represented more egoistical dreams. Tinkers by Paul Harding was a good book and it won the Pulitzer prize, but I loved the book less for what it did to me, than for what it represented. I wanted the Harvard fellowship Harding had. I organize my bookshelf to rethink my priorities, and organize my bookshelf to remember my priorities.

But Harding had to leave his family to do the fellowship. I decided long ago I’d never again embrace a love that pushed out all my other loves, and so Tinkers has been demoted to my general fiction shelves. But I can still remember Harding’s beautiful descriptions of the inner workings of a clock, prose set like a jewel between the descriptions of the biological and psychological process of dying.

I don’t have a travel writing shelf, because my books are travelers. They have moved half a dozen times and every time, I have brought them with me. I brought them to Canada and for a whole year they were hostages of the Canadian border. My father had to cross the border to get them out of storage. They lived with me in New York City for a while. When I moved, I drove them across the continent and they lived in a closet in my parents’ apartment in Portland, Oregon.

When I moved to O’ahu, my dad shipped them box by box to Hawai’i by media mail because it was cheaper than putting them on a cargo ship.

After a whole morning of cleaning cobwebs, stacking, and re-stacking, my bookshelves are finally organized. In the Shinto tradition, there is the belief that spirits inhabit all things, but I think some things are more haunted than others. Each book I have has a life and a spirit. I touch Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality and I am reminded of camping alone in New Hampshire, a cold night where the caretaker helped me start a fire. The next morning I climbed the 700-foot-tall Cathedral Ledge with a guide, one line I finished.

I once resisted self-help books, but when I got back from that climb, something changed inside of me. I hid the self-help books behind my Tolstoy, but I still did all the worksheets in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies.

Now, I don’t hide my self-help books, but keep them nearby for when I need help, which is often. Some are silly and make me laugh; others keep me grounded.

My books represent possibility and dreams, unfulfilled ambitions, and they house my memories. I have written journal entries in some of their margins, and have dog-earned others so much, they are twice as wide as they should be. I have lost some, given some away, and have had to re-buy some books because they were just too important not to have. My bookshelves are my brain. Today at least, my brain is in order.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.