Burn Your Book(-Shelving Paradigm)

August 22, 2014

My first job was shelving books at the Barnes & Noble in my hometown of Mankato. It was kind of a dream come true for a 16-year-old who loved reading — I always liked keeping a well-organized bookshelf, but all of a sudden I was getting paid to make sure things were in the right places. To this day, I am still an advocate for the B&N way of dealing with “Mc” names: “Mc” goes at the very beginning of the “M” section, not between “Mb” and “Md.” Your name could be “McZzzzzzz” and it would still be shelved before “Mae.” Funny, right?

Here's box four of nine.

Here’s box four of nine.

Anyway, I have too many books. I moved into my house a year ago, but only got around to setting up my office/reading room this past weekend. At my last place, I had my books in B&N-ready condition: A to Z, with numbers and miscellany at the very end. Nothing special — and, in fact, it was kind of boring. I’d go looking for a favorite author — Cormac McCarthy, say — and just wind up within a few letters of his or her section. If I “wandered,” I’d maybe wind up reading a John McPhee book or a Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but more often than not I’d find myself reading a lot of books out of one part of the alphabet while letting certain areas collect dust. For the amount of sweat and energy I’d spent over the years hauling these books around, it was a disservice.

So, taking some #inspiration from some blog or magazine article I’d read at one point, I decided to do something a little funky with my new shelving system: chromatic order. That is, white to black.

Now, when I first saw pictures of a chromatically arranged bookshelf, I wasn’t having it. “How do you know where anything is? Who would conceivably spend the time to do this? Do these people even read?” My answers, in order: you don’t; me; yes.

For want of anything better to do on a Sunday afternoon, I started sorting my books by their spine colors. Whites, yellows, reds, blues, greens, blacks — and then getting into sub-categories, like “fading whites” and “pale maroons” and “metallic silver.” Subject matter, author, publisher — none of it mattered! It was all about the color. Then I started the long process of organizing them by relative hue and tone on the spectrum: white went to yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green and black, with silver and gold tacked on at the end.

White through forest green.

White through forest green.

(A designer would have a problem with my understanding of the color spectrum, but it looks good to my eye.)

Now my books seem gentler and more at home with each other. My reading choices are more democratic — if I want a book off the shelf, I have to dig and really think about what I’m looking for. In the hunt for one book, I might stumble into something I hadn’t been expecting. Or, if I’m feeling totally “surprise me,” I can go to literally any point on the shelves and find a nice mix of nonfiction, fiction, poetry or essays.

Most importantly, I got to take a few hours and reacquaint myself with my library. I hadn’t seen any of these books in a year, and my number of “oh, man” moments was pretty astronomical. I’m more excited about reading than I have been in years, and that’s a great place to be.