I Have More Than 300 Books. Quarantine Seemed Like a Great Time to Organize Them.

published Apr 8, 2020
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Credit: Samantha Zabell

I have too many books for a one-bedroom apartment.

There is also no such thing as “too many books.”

These are contradictory facts that are also very true of my life in Manhattan. There are a lot of books; many of which I’ve bought from favorite local bookstores, or had sent to me generously by publishers looking for a review. If I had to guess, I have about… 350. Almost one book per day of the year. Even though I have two very nice bookshelves in my one-bedroom apartment, my books like to take up residence everywhere: tote bags, the floor, random piles next to the bookshelves.

Then there are the ones I mean to give away, but choose instead to create precarious piles all over my apartment that have recently threatened to all fall over at once like simultaneous losing games of Jenga. So not only did I need to organize the ones I have (you know, to actually find books and get them all on the shelves), I also needed to separate out the ones I finally needed to get rid of.

I pushed off doing anything about all of this until it felt “right”. Then, we began sheltering in place. Now that I was staring at my disorganized bookshelves all day and attempting to do yoga in my bedroom amidst the Book Piles, I was finally motivated to get organized. I wanted a system for my hundreds of books (and to finally give away the ones I needed to), and now I had nothing but time.

Credit: Samantha Zabell
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My big, disorganized bookshelf before.

Because I’m a planner, I took about a week soliciting ideas for organization. I asked friends how they organized their books and even reached out to some experts. Jenna Noll of @jennareadsbooks has me beat at an estimated 450 books in her apartment, which she organizes by category (genre-ish) and then alphabetically by author. She does not mix unread and read, and of her read books, she only keeps those that she absolutely loved. 

Others were straight alphabetizers; some by genre, then by color; some just by color. Some were even Dewey Decimal Lifers. I will say: This whole project taught me that I don’t understand the Dewey Decimal System.

I toyed with the idea of doing an all-white theme for one of my bookshelves, because it’s a very simple, minimalist design and I thought that could be a cool choice. (I abandoned that notion pretty quickly, on account of wanting to be able to locate a book when I want to.) Instead, I decided to begin sorting by genre, and then would shelve alphabetically. Eventually, I landed on the perfect organization method—here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Create Unruly Piles

The first process of sorting was unshelving. I took every book off the shelves, every pile from the floor, and rescued books that I’d thrown in tote bags, almost forgotten. There were so many. But it helped to see them all. Then, I began to sort.

Step 2: Outline the System

I made a list of what genres I thought I would organize by: memoir, autobiography/biography, essays, poetry, short stories, mystery, literary/contemporary, classics, science fiction/fantasy. I began sorting the books into these categories, but quickly hit a snag.

Step 3: Watch the System Fall Apart

What do you do when a book is a sci-fi mystery? Where do I draw the line for “fantasy”—I have a lot of books that have just a touch of surrealism. What makes a classic anyway? I was about halfway through my piles and the system was falling to pieces.

Step 4: Consult an Expert

This time, I didn’t talk to a book expert—I talked to someone who knew me and my quirks and my personality. I called one of my best friends and asked her how she would sort her books—the answer was, of course, alphabetical, because she is practical like that. But for some reason, I was tied to separating fiction and non-fiction. She made the suggestion that I separate into three broad categories: fiction, non-fiction, and short stories. I loved that.

I am a huge fan of short stories. I have enough collections to fill two large shelves, and I have many that I still want to buy and read. Finding a way to separate and showcase my extensive short story collection felt like it turned this system into something personalized. It clicked! If you find that you have a favorite genre that you want to separate out from fiction and non-fiction—graphic novels, celebrity memoirs, anything written by Bill Bryson—feel free to follow my lead.

Step 5: Revamp the System

Now that I had some books in semi-genre piles, and some books still uncategorized, I went to work on my new system. I selected the stacks that I knew were in the short story category, and began alphabetizing. I created letter piles on my dining room table (I use the phrase “dining room” very loosely here—it’s obviously just the designated dining area of the living room). A authors went at the top left of the table, B authors went to the right of those, and then this continued all the way through the alphabet. Since this was my smallest collection, it went by pretty quickly. I followed the same pattern for all of nonfiction as well.

When I moved to fiction, by far the largest and unruly, I worked in one half of the alphabet at a time. I started with books whose authors names started with A through P, and set aside any others on a chair for later sorting. 

Throughout the process, an important pile remained on the floor: the discard/donate pile. These are books that a) I’ve had on my shelf for years and never read or b) I remember reading but didn’t actually enjoy all that much. I ended up with somewhere around 50 books to put in a bag for donation or gifting in the distant future when we’re all allowed outdoors again.

The final product was beautiful. The shelves looked full and colorful and organized, and it is easier than ever to find what I’m looking for. It’s also easier for me to know if I already own a book that I’m looking to read (I have made accidental purchases before). I moved a lot of the tchotchkes off of the shelves, too, which makes them seem all the more streamlined and allows the books to be the centerpiece. Most importantly, all of the books I want to keep fit perfectly. Maybe a little too perfectly. I’ve actually ordered three new books since this fit of organization, which means I might have to give away some more books (or buy a new shelf… mwahaha).

In theory, I’m moving apartments in September. Last time, I put hundreds of books into duffel bags and left it to Future Sam to organize when she arrived at her new place. This time, they’re going into boxes, in order, in my new system. Until then, I have a lot of reading to do.