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How The Defector Staff Organizes Their Books

a woman in a dress sits on a library ladder
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Every few months, there is a new viral tweet about how people organize their books. Not having enough books in your apartment can be a red flag, but so can having too many books. Organizing the spines of your book by color could be an aesthetic choice, or proof that you're a nincompoop who only buys books for decoration.

What books a person chooses to keep, and how they choose to store them, is a personal choice. But that doesn't mean we can't judge it!

We began having this conversation after seeing a poll from YouGov that shows that the more books a person owns, the more likely they are to organize them by genre or subject.

The survey the graph comes from claims to have polled 29,000 Americans and found that 85 percent of them owned at least one physical book. And 29 percent of those people don't organize their books at all. The rest of them have (to paraphrase) some kind of sicko system. What are the sicko systems of the Defector Staff?

Kelsey: I do not have object permanence, so I have to keep every book that I like, might want to read again, or may need to reference in the future, so that I don’t forget it exists. What this means is that I have so many books in my house it is categorically a library. Most of them go downstairs in the living room where they are divided into: fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. All of those sections are organized alphabetically by the author's last name. Then there are the books I am using for work, or things that I would perhaps like to use for work soon. Those go in stacks. There is a stack on my desk, and a stack by the big chair in my office, and one stack on the ground. The books I am reading for pleasure currently, go in two little stacks: one by the couch and one by my bed. The rest of the books go on a shelf in my office which is where I keep (embarrassingly) all the extra copies of my novel, and every book that I haven’t read yet, but might read soon.

Barry: I own zero books. Or, I should say, I own zero books that I’ve already read—I have a stack of about a dozen in my current to-read queue. But when I read a book, it promptly gets given away or donated (Brooklyn Public Library: you’re welcome). Books are meant to be read! And once I’ve read one, that means it’s time for someone else to read it. That they then don’t take up space in my relatively small apartment is just a bonus on top of letting the books fly free, like pretty birds that shouldn’t be caged.

Maitreyi: I own many books, but no bookshelves. I keep some on my windowsills and the rest are piled up on side tables and on my coffee table. The piles aren’t organized at all.

Luis: Much to my regret every time I move, I like to keep essentially every book that I have bought in the last 12 or so years. Basically, since I graduated college, I've slowly increased my collection via various sales, Book of the Month memberships, and impulse purchases of much-hyped novels. Since I am almost strictly a fiction reader, there's no need for a complex organization system: I just throw every book I have on my two normal-sized bookshelves, organized by the author's last name. I will probably have to buy another bookshelf soon, as I have run out of space and have started stacking books on top of books, but for now, this works fine.

Giri: I am a pathetic sentimentalist when it comes to physical objects. The honest way to say that is "hoarder." I can't let go of books I loved, and I'm not even all that good at letting go of books I don't care about. All my shelves are stuffed with books; an overhead storage nook is filled with boxes of books I haven't touched in years; there are loose books lying on most flat surfaces. At some point my bookshelf was organized kind of thematically, but moving apartments undid that and I never bothered redoing it. I'm saving them all for some hypothetical date in the future when I live somewhere that can comfortably contain all these books. The prognosis is grim.

Lauren: I only buy a couple books a year—usually the trendy gay ones I want to have conversations about—because I hate having to store and eventually move stuff and because I would literally marry a public library if I could. I have a few books in a box under my bed, and others have gone to friends, my parents’ house, and the shelves at the Defector office. But I am also slightly self-conscious about the maxim that if you go visit someone and they don’t have any books, you should bail, so I have about a dozen of my favorites hanging out next to my Playstation 3 just so nobody thinks I’m a Philistine. I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read through a screen.

Drew: The idea that I would organize my books, or even know where they are, is essentially foreign to me. There are books everywhere in this goddamn house: in the kitchen, in my office, in the TV room, stacked right by my nightstand, etc. Some of these are cookbooks. Some are kiddie books that we never threw out. Some are extra copies of books that I wrote, and they’re sitting on shelves because I have nowhere else to put them (visitors will assume I did it out of vanity, and I’m sure there’s a bit of that).

And our bookshelves are hardly exclusive to books. The one in my office houses board games, unused picture frames, art supplies, a Vikings Mr. Potato Head, a home blood pressure monitor I bought at CVS, spare cords, and a hodgepodge of other random crap. If I’m reading a book (and I tend to read a few at the same time due to a pathetic attention span), that book is either sitting next to my recliner, or on top of my nightstand. It’s usually a Kindle book, but not always. Once I’m done with that book, I stick it wherever there’s space and then never read it again. The book I’m reading is, almost always, the only one I give a shit about.

Albert: My wife and I both worked at bookstores for years; we have a lot of books. Hundreds upon hundreds. There are bookshelves all over the place. The books used to be organized, once upon a time, by subject (broadly defined) and then by author within subjects, but then at some point along the way everything had to come off the shelves for some reason and when we put them back, it was in no real order. So they are not organized now, except where the subjects remain sort of clumped together because that’s how they were when we took them off the shelves in the first place.

We’ve both stopped accumulating physical books at anything like our former rates. I do most of my book-reading in ebook form these days, on an old iPad, because I do most of my book-reading in bed and I don’t want to have to bother with a clip-on book light or anything like that. We probably only add, like, fewer than 10 books a year to the hoard. On the other hand I don’t think either of us has intentionally disposed of a book literally ever, so the hoard is not shrinking, nor will it.

Ray: By size and cover material, except when it’s FAGAS: Find A Gap And Shove. I don’t work at the library, and until I do this is one of the things I don’t want to expend the brain space to obsess about. I have 16 shelves (I counted only for the purposes of this blog) and they’re all full, so I guess I’ve done my job, whatever that is.

Alex: We have three formal places where books live in our house, and a bunch of informal places. The bookshelves in our living room are sorted roughly by genre and alphabetically by author’s last name. We keep general fiction, poetry, and theater out there, as well as a very special shelf of books published by our friends and loved ones. I love having that on display right in the middle of our home. Then, my husband has three big shelves in his office for all his war books, which I assume are organized in some way but I couldn’t tell you how. The books in my office are sorted by category but not alphabetically. The categories are: books I’m using to write my book; women by women (autobiographies, memoir, and nonfiction); Asian shit (fiction/nonfiction as well as academic stuff I’ve saved from college); and general journalism and computer science. I also have a couple secret categories hidden behind the visible books: bad business books, self-help, and books like Lean In and Bossypants that I don’t feel awesome about seeing on my shelves all the time. Outside of the formal book homes, I’ve got stacks everywhere. The office floor stacks are lower priority to read than the bedroom stack. Lowest priority is probably the stack that occasionally forms on a table in the living room, which is usually books I’m offloading from the bedroom and office stacks to be re-homed on shelves. The alphabetizing completely falls apart when I re-home formerly stacked books, so I’m slowly introducing chaos to our relatively ordered system.

Roth: We have a lot of books in our spot, and I think if our apartment were bigger, or just had more bookshelves in it, we’d have even more. We definitely did not get here in an especially considered way, or anyway we didn’t get here in a way that’s more considered than a couple decades of individual and collective decisions to buy things we thought seemed interesting. But now that we are where we are, with our bookshelves—two big ones and one small one in the front, one big one each in the bedroom and office, plus a few random shelves—at something like 115 percent capacity, we are a little more thoughtful about it. They’re organized, more or less—the novels, which are something like 70 percent of our books, are organized alphabetically, and the rest are broken down into smaller categories (cookbooks, books about politics, or sports, or cities, and leftover stuff from my wife’s grad school years) more or less as it would be in a moderately chaotic bookstore.

But there are also some less-organized areas, if I am being honest. I am looking at four stacks of varying heights atop a non-working radiator in the corner of our dining area, and if I look to my left I will see another on a little end table near my side of the couch, and there are some kind of emergency on-deck stacks on both my nightstand and my wife’s. The considered part, beyond the alphabetization, is that some of these stacks represent books that are on their way out in some way or another. Some we are going to sell back to The Strand—we do this quarterly, with as many books as they will take in one go, and take store credit; this puts us on the short end of something like an eight-for-one trade. Some I have been meaning to send to various people for let’s say weeks. Some are earmarked for being returned to one of my wife’s thousands of aunts. It is a little less unsettling than I am making it sound, I hope. My father-in-law’s home is full of books in a way that makes me feel claustrophobic; I am constantly either knocking over or nearly knocking over a stack of four-pound Harlan Coben hardbacks that will eventually make their way to one of the antique malls he sells out of. We haven’t discussed it as such, but I think the idea that we have is to stay on the right side of that—to have enough books around that we feel their presence, which we both find soothing, without tipping over into feeling surrounded. We are, from one moment to the next, barely on one side or another of that line.

Sabrina: The bookshelf in our dining room is one of those bookshelves that looks like one big stack of books, so it is for the books with the biggest, most beautiful spines. Have I read all the books on this shelf? No. But I know they are beautiful, and they are color-coded. My partner has a bookshelf in their office for their books, and I have two bookshelves in my office where I keep the rest of my books that either have less beautiful spines than the dining room books. I am always getting new books, which also means I am constantly giving books away to friends or little libraries on my street. But the books I keep are the ones I know I will want to reread, for learning or pleasure or feeling or any of those great things books can do, and one shelf on my office bookcase is devoted to these special favorite books that I cannot live, or write, without. If you guess any of the books on this shelf I will send you a photo of a snake wearing a caterpillar as a hat that I saw on Wikipedia the other day and has been very pleasing to me since.

Chris: A couple years ago when my mother-in-law died, my wife and her sister and their cousin decided that we needed to take in a bunch of accursed heirloom furniture into a house that is already crammed full of heirloom furniture. None of the new accursed furniture is shelves, but unfortunately several of these pieces were given priority over other, non-heirloom furniture, which meant that we had to remove some bookshelves. So now I have a lot of books in boxes in the attic, and some books on a jam-packed bookshelf in my office, and then books on flat surfaces all over the place. Also there are kids books on a shelf in my kid’s room, and in her toy area, and all over her parents’ bedroom, and just fucking everywhere!

Patrick: The first thing you see when you walk into my apartment is a great big huge bookshelf looming over the couch, with a big plant on top of it. The bottom shelf is old magazine issues and reference/academic books, and the rest is “just books.” There are a bunch of piles of books on the ground next to it, and several more piles scattered throughout the house, one on each bedside table, one on each desk, and another few on various other surfaces. I keep a book or a Baffler or something in each of the four or so tote bags I keep in rotation “in case I need to read something on the train.” (This is NOT an affectation, I really do read on BART, often making remarks such as “Oh huh!” or “Interesting…” to let my train-mates know that I’m enriching myself.) I do most of my reading on the Kindle.

Justin: First, I want to make it clear that I do not have a copy of The Power Broker just sitting around for the purposes of making quips at the various canapé-laden cocktail parties one finds in Manhattan. However, I do have Adventures In The Screen Trade, so I am the other archetype. Anyway. Books: we have them! Also all sorts of other physical media! Who could have imagined this when a games academic and a journalist created a life together they would recreate something like a Sam Goody in their own home. How are you people organizing shit? Who has time for this? Is it more pleasing to know that Descartes is not sitting next to Calvin and Hobbes on a shelf? In our home there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the organization other than the basic math of having three bookshelves and “we need to get these out of boxes and clear space in this apartment” when we moved last winter. Functionally this means fiction and nonfiction and graphic novels and oversized art tomes are all on the same packed crosstown bus with board games, my record collection, and various console games that do not live in the TV stand. I also have two milk crates and an Ikea cart filled with nonfiction, biographies, and histories for the book I am working on, which are not organized because I am frequently grabbing them when I freak out and need to sprint through writing. And now our infant has her own bookcase in her room, which makes my heart fill with emotions. It would be full if not for the fact she is constantly chucking the books around in gleeful hysterics. Teach them young.

Kathryn: I’ve been moving around so much between moving out of my college apartment and then entering so-called Real Adulthood that I don’t have a set system of organizing books. In my old apartment, where I lived for about two years, I kept my books on the shelves of my desk, with books I bought for class on the bottom shelf and books I bought for myself on the top shelf. That desk (bad quality) has since been trashed and when I was moving into my new apartment, I downsized my book levels pretty significantly to make it easier to move in. Now, probably two-thirds of my books are in a box in the living room of my parents’ house, and the remaining one-third are on the windowsill of my bedroom. That's organization, baby.

Israel: Funnily enough, when my friend and I first moved into our current apartment, we disagreed on getting a bookshelf. I wanted a big oak monstrosity in the corner of our living room and she was totally against it, mainly because we had such little space as it was and a bookshelf would take up so much of it. Not to mention it would look ugly in the context of how our place was set up. So we didn’t do that, and as a result, our books ended up stacked on the floor. I look at it as strategic sloppiness: Our books are organized mostly by size against a wall, in an even array of four little towers in a corner. It doesn’t take up too much space and it's presentable in its own chaotic neutral way (a little punk rock, if you will). It's like something out of an old black and white photo of Lou Reed in his shitty New York apartment, nothin’ but a guitar, a mattress, and his beat generation books on the floor. It’s not always fun when you have to grab one from the bottom, though, just hoping an entire tower doesn’t fall like Jenga. 

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