How Four Authors Organize and Declutter Their Massive Book Collections

published Apr 20, 2022
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Credit: Liz Calka

Looking at my bookshelves, I am plagued by the infamous question of readers and writers alike: Can you ever have too many books? Personally, I am always on a quest to have what I love proudly displayed, but when what I love begins to fill up baskets, cover my desk, and form towers in corners, I know it’s time to reevaluate. To help me sort through everything, I’ll be using the advice of the four authors below. Read on to see how they break down the what, where, and when of book organization.

Credit: Elissa Altman

Making annual donations to your local library can free up space.

“I organize my books by category and then subcategory: Fiction is all together, and within fiction there are multiple books by the same author are together. Poetry is all together and organized by author. We have a large kitchen bookshelf, and all of our cookbooks are organized by region or genre, and then by author, so all of my Nigella Lawsons and Diana Henrys and Nigel Slaters are together, all of my Chez Panisses are with my Deborah Madisons, and all of my Dorie Greenspans are on the baking shelf. 

It’s hard to let go of books — my wife is a book designer for Random House, so we’re drowning — and when we do make annual donations to our local library for their annual sale (28 boxes, one year) we have to be careful not to accidentally buy them back. That’s happened more than once.” —Elissa Altman, author of “Motherland”  

Credit: Katie Heaney

Loving a book is a reason to keep it. 

“I try to group books together by genre and by author, but I also hate having two books of vastly different heights next to each other, so sometimes it doesn’t work out. In general, though, I have a memoirs and essays section, a fiction section, a to-read section, and a sci-fi section. 

My bookshelves aren’t that big, and while I’d love to have the “Beauty and the Beast” library, I have moved enough to realize how much it sucks to transport things I don’t really need. If I don’t love a book or don’t think I’d lend it to a friend, I usually donate it. I rarely reread books, but I keep the ones I love because I still like looking at them.” —Katie Heaney, author of “The Year I Stopped Trying “

Credit: Michele Filgate

Weed out books you know you’ll never read.  

“I used to have my books alphabetized but gave up on that system years ago, so it’s mostly random. The bookshelf in my office is organized by signed books, my own anthology, books about writing, a shelf of books by or about Virginia Woolf, anthologies, and so on. The only alphabetized books in my apartment are my collection of New York Review Books.

I keep a book if I know I’ll want to reread it or have it as a reference. I often get rid of galleys once I get a finished book in the mail. Sometimes it’s difficult to admit I won’t ever have time to read everything I want to!” —Michele Filgate, editor of “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About “

Credit: Kristen Arnett

Some books may serve you…up to a point.

“I’m a librarian, which means I am constantly reconsidering what organizational structure best suits my needs. For myself (and my girlfriend, because we moved in together and merged our collections), what works right now is a system of four tall IKEA bookcases. Alphabetized fiction is housed in two of them, with Stephen King pulled out as his own shelf. I also have two shelves for short fiction and two poetry shelves, all sorted by color. The third bookcase contains nonfiction, memoirs, and essays. The remaining bookcase is miscellaneous: older books from childhood, classics and vintage books I love but don’t need on a regular basis, and copies of my own books that I also don’t need to see. 

Another thing being a librarian taught me is that deselecting titles is normal and good. Sometimes books no longer serve you the way they used to, and that’s when you can donate them to a library, a friend, or even a used bookstore. I go through my own collection every few months and decide which books need to go. The process is surprisingly easy: Will I read this book again? If the answer is no, then I ask a follow up: Why do I need to keep it? I grew up in a household that denied me access to reading, so sometimes I choose to hang onto books for that reason instead of a need for the book itself. If it’s a book I know I can get again or check out from a library, a lot of times I let that book go. If it’s signed by a friend, I am keeping that book! That’s how I sort everything now, but who knows what I might do next? My bookshelf is constantly changing, and buddy, so am I.” —Kristen Arnett, author of “With Teeth”