Organizing your bookshelves? This is how 8 authors do it

Al Woodworth on April 23, 2020

Organizing your bookshelves? This is how 8 authors do it

There are so many ways to organize your books: alphabetical, by genre, by an idiosyncratic grouping that only you the librarian would know. Design pros (or Elizabeth Gilbert) might even steer you to shelve by color. And then of course there's the digital library that you can take with you wherever you go.

For those in need of a organizing project, or just want a peek inside the libraries of bestselling and beloved authors, here's a behind the shelf (ha) look at how they arrange their bookshelves.

Lily King, author of Writers & Lovers

"Because I worked at three bookstores while writing my first novel, I now have to arrange my books alphabetically, and by sections: fiction, memoir, poetry, anthologies, history/biography, travel, language learning, dictionaries. So geeky, I know, but I need to know where I can find a book when I need it. I also have little clusters of books about subjects I’m hoping to write about someday. That said, we moved nearly a year ago and my books were just tossed onto shelves willy-nilly and it feels awful and I know the books don’t like it much either. I have a huge bookcase in my study and other piles against the wall. I do love having lots of books around me as I write. It’s much more companionable that way." —Lily King

Colum McCann, author of Apeirogon

"In truth I'm a complete and utter disaster when it comes to organizing just about anything. I must have about ten thousand books, but I have no system of alphabetical order. Nor do I even have a coveted place for favorites. I have a home office, a living room floor to ceiling with books, a college office, access to a writing cabin that belongs to a friend, and I have books in each one of them. I have multiple copies of some books, like Coming Through Slaughter, or Ulysses, or Song of Solomon. I'm in creative isolation in the cabin right now and my selection is limited, but I found myself delving into work by Wendell Berry and then just this morning I opened up Louise Erdrich's Tracks to find this beautiful, haunting line: 'We started dying before the snow, and like the snow we continued to fall. It was surprising there were so many of us left to die.' This is the sort of writing that accomplishes what literature must do, which is confront the heartbreak of the world over and over again." —Colum McCann

Dean Koontz, author of Devoted:

"I have a library containing about 40,000 volumes arranged in three equal categories: fiction by author, nonfiction by subject, biographies by subject. In theory, I can find anything I want in less than a minute. Except when, for instance, I’m working on an essay about the meaning of life and I discover that I have shelved Peewee Herman’s autobiography under his real name, so I spend a frantic four hours trying to remember that he’s Paul Reubens, by which time I’ve forgotten why I felt that his unique perspective on Planck’s Law (of quantum theory) would illuminate the purpose of human existence." —Dean Koontz

Brit Bennet, author of The Vanishing Half

"I don't organize my books. It's bad. A bookseller friend came over once and said, 'Oh my god, Brit, please let me organize your books.' I usually just stick them on the bookshelf where there's space and leave strategic piles on other surfaces. Right now I'm staring at a stack on my TV stand that will remind me I should be reading as I'm binge-watching Netflix." —Brit Bennett

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of City of Girls

"I have a two-part system for organizing my bookshelves, which is simple and quirky and indefensible. My home has two bookshelf regions — one is for fiction, one is for non-fiction. I organize the fiction by author’s last name. I organize the non-fiction by COLOR OF THE BOOK JACKET. So half of my library looks like a rainbow, simply because it pleases me to look at it (and I can never find the books I need, when I go looking for them) and the other half of my library is tidily grouped by author. Don’t push me for answers on why I do it this way; I don’t understand it myself. But there it is." —Elizabeth Gilbert

Veronica Roth, author of The Chosen Ones

"My husband and I agree on a very important home decorating principle: books are nice to look at. So we have bookshelves in every room. (Yes, there is even a small collection of Calvin and Hobbes books in the bathroom.) Where I write, in the sun room, they are on shelves that wrap around the perimeter of the room, near the ceiling. They aren't in any particular order, but because I've been slowly filling the shelves there, they ended up being roughly in order of when I purchased and read them, which is my preferred method of book organization anyway. That way, your books become a timeline, too." —Veronica Roth

Mary Gannon and Kevin Larimer, authors of The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer: Everything You Need to Know About Craft, Inspiration, Agents, Editors, Publishing, and the Business of Building a Sustainable Writing Career

"As is likely the case with any family of writers, it would be difficult to find a room in our home without books. Apart from the bedside tables piled with to-be-read titles and the hallway bookshelves filled with paperbacks, our family room is dominated by seven bookcases overflowing with novels and story collections--they were alphabetized at one point--mostly hardcovers. Nonfiction books line the top of these bookcases, with Kevin's collection of antique typewriters serving as bookends. Our dining room is where the poetry lives—two floor-to-ceiling bookcases packed with slim volumes that are alphabetized, as well as a number of hardcover Collected Poems and anthologies. Our living room holds our special books, our old signed volumes, including a 1931 edition of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra and a 1964 edition of John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs, as well as newer signed editions by Tracy K. Smith, Joy Harjo, Denis Johnson, and Salman Rushdie. In the basement, alongside Mary's tabletop letterpress, is a box filled with contributor copies of old literary magazines in which our own writing was first published. It all sounds very tidy, but when work started on our book, The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer (April 7), the floor of our dining room--and the surface of our dining room table--was turned into a research library. Even now, as publication day nears, four towering stacks of books about writing and publishing, nearly 150 in all, fill the corner of our dining room. They are the books behind The Book in our home filled with books." —Mary Gannon and Kevin Larimer

Nicholas Sparks, author of The Return

"Like most authors, I have a passionate love of reading and adore books to the point that I want to display them. Because I also love to recommend books to those who happen to be staying with me, I like to know exactly where to find whatever particular book I think they might enjoy. My fiction shelves, both hard-cover and trade paperback, are organized alphabetically by author; my non-fiction shelves are organized primarily by subject whether that be history, biography, theology, sociology, or other areas of interest. I'm fortunate that I also have "hidden cubbies" in my library that allow me to store multiple books by the same author. Thus if you find a single novel by Stephen King or Gillian Flynn or Dennis LeHane on the shelf, for example, there's a high likelihood I have other non-displayed titles as well." —Nicholas Sparks

Photo of Dean Koontz, credit Douglas Sonders.

This was first published on the Amazon Book Review on April 1, 2020. 

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