What Are The Rules For Your Book Collection?

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

Back sometime in 2018, I wrote about how I find the books that I read and what my selection process is like.  I meant to follow it up shortly with another post about how I choose which books to add to my collection because as much as I try not to be materialistic, books are definitely my kryptonite.  Obviously, as a nerd, books hold a special place and I waiver in my belief that it's somehow different from holding dear to shoes, clothes, cooking devices, sports memorabilia, etc.  But I wanted to do more than just that, but explain how I conceive of, organize, and interact with my bookshelves.

While a part of me would love to have a library of every book I've ever read (Goodreads says that would be in the vicinity of 4,250+ books, but I know that list is missing at least 100-200), I also live in a finite space and with a partner who would prefer not to trade in furniture for bookshelves.  A few years ago, I worked to find an acceptable limit that would capture the gist of my reading but also not overwhelm our living space.  About a decade ago, I bought 2 large 4-foot wide/8 foot tall reinforced bookshelves from The Mill Store (they have amazing deals!).  These were beautiful and perfect for my books--no sagging shelves, ample room for all the books.  So somewhere along the way, that I decided that this would be the definitive maximum space my read-books would take up.  I should also note that I have one other large bookshelf but that is of work-related books and I keep that at work. 

Given the limited space (for a book nerd, mind you), I've developed two rules about what books make it onto the bookshelf. 

The first rule is that I must have read it entirely (audiobooks count here, of course).  I can't add it until it's done.  This means it took me over a decade to get Foucault's History of Sexuality Volume 1 from TBR shelf (more on that below) to my actual bookshelf.  10+ years!!!  But that's the rule, until I finish it, it's not allowed to be there; in fact, I'm not allowed to even buy it (with one loophole--again, more on that later). 

However, once I have read it, it doesn't transfer to the bookshelf instantaneously.  It has to pass the litmus test for ownership and then the price test for purchasing. 

A shelf on the bookshelf of nonfiction books
Part of the Nonfiction Section

The Litmus Test for Book Ownership

The second rule for books that end up on my bookshelf is that they have to fit into one of three categories: life-changing, academically-related, deep nostalgic connection

Life-changing books are, of course, books that have profoundly changed me or challenged me at my core and made me rethinking so much of what I know about the world and my place in it.  Books that fall into this category include (note, these are just 10 that I grabbed from a quick scan of the nonfiction, not a comprehensive or ranked list). 
  1. The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander
  2. A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger
  3. Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein
  4. Freaks Talk Back by Joshua Gamson
  5. The Culture of Fear by Barry Glasner
  6. Everything Bad For You Is Good by Steven Johnson
  7. Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
  8. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
  9. The Erotic Mind by Jack Morin
  10. Inventing Reality by Michael Parenti
Books that are related to my work as an instructional designer, teacher, writer, or scholar obviously need to be held onto so as to call upon as needed.  Many of the books for instructional design are at work but others can also be found on my bookshelves at home.  These include the following:
  1. The Copyright Wars by Peter Baldwin
  2. The Power of Comics by Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith
  3. How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster
  4. Popular Culture: An introduction by Carla Freccero
  5. The Literature Review: 6 Steps to Success by Lawrence Machi and Brenda McEvoy
Then, of course, there are the books that make it onto deep nostalgic connection.  Some of these are actually mentioned above and were the topic of a piece I wrote on this blog back in 2012 (yeah--this blog has been around for 8 years; in Internet years, that means it's old enough to tell you to get of its lawn!) 
  1. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  2. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov
  3. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia (This children's book was a main feature in my father's eulogy)
  4. Ender's Game by Oscon Scott Card
  5. The Wayfarer Redemption series by Sara Douglass
  6. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
  7. The Odyssey by Homer
  8. It by Stephen King
  9. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  10. Caliban's Hour by Tad Williams
Now, these are not absolutely categories; many of the ones above mentioned could have strong overlaps in a Venn diagram (particularly the fiction with the teaching and the writing careers), but those constructs help me to determine which ones end up in on the shelves.

A shelf on the bookshelf of fiction books
Part of the Fiction Section

But Where Do The Books Go On Your Shelf?

Once I have them, the inevitable question is how to organize them.  I've known some to be creative, doing date of publication, binder color, order of acquisition, alphabetical by title, alphabetical by author's last name, size of the book, length of the book and so on.  I'm sure there are several coffee books out there on the ways with which you could organize books for the home. 

I go in a semi-traditional direction of alphabetical by author's last name.  However, before doing that, I have broken my books into three different sections:  fiction, graphic novels, and nonfiction.  Some of this makes sense in what I'm often looking at the books for but also for a more functional reason.  If this is the space I have dedicated to books, then I need to make the most efficient space of it.  Therefore, having books of similar size (e.g. mass market paperbacks) together means I can get the most out of given spaces since most of the books are of similar size (e.g. 90% of graphic novels--completely made up number--are of 2 sizes: traditional comic book size and the smaller manga size, so it's easier to organize them effectively). 

Stacking varies.  Right now, while I still have room, my nonfiction section is placed akin to how one might see it in a library, spines perpendicular to the shelf.  However, my graphic novels and some of my fiction section is horizontally stacked to keep it limited to three shelves in total. 

Side-note about bookshelves:  How is it in 2020, we haven't figured out a better way to display books in bookstores than horizontal shelving with books vertically aligned?  Seriously, this is the WORSE way by which to peruse books. People wanna blame ebooks, millennials, or Amazon for the demise of bookshops.  I blame user-design of bookshelves

A shelf on the bookshelf of graphic novels
Part of the Graphic Novel Section

Maintaining the Balance

The hardest part of maintaining these bookshelves is the pruning that must take place.  Every six months or so, I take a look through my shelves. I do two run-throughs.  The first is to see if any specific books I can easily or unemotionally yank from the shelves.  There can be numerous reasons for this and this pass usually gets at least 2-5 books.  The second run-through is a bit more deliberate and calls for me to wrestle with my own mind.  I try to take a bit more time during this run through and determine if I really want this book in connection with the three reasons up above or if I am keeping it just to keep it (and of course, underneath that "just to keep it" are all sorts of psychological questions about why; that may be an idea for another post).  This process is hard but inevitably useful.  The discarded books will inevitably be donated to the library or some other book-related cause. 

A shelf on the bookshelf of fiction with a Dr. Doom plastic figure leaning against some of the books.
Dr. Doom's just trying to hold back all the (Sara Douglass) books!

What About My TBR Pile

Avid readers all have a To-Be-Read (TBR) pile.  What is a TBR pile?  It is a "to be read" pile of books that we are planning to read next.  For years, my TBR pile grew by leaps and bounds, eventually taking up large plastic bins.  Eventually, I realized I was never going to get to them.  Over the years, I have shrunk that to a singular (non-bookshelf) shelf and have slowly chipped away at it, either removing books or actually reading them. 

However, I stopped collecting books that I haven't read yet with rare exceptions.  Instead, if there are books that I'm interested in reading, I add them to specified Wishlists on Amazon (broken up by different interests--fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, work-related, and PhD-related lists) so that they are always there but not taking up physical space.  When I'm ready to read a specific book, my first go-to is the library to try to read it before deciding to own it. 

The one exception to this bringing in of books into the house is when I travel. On trips, I often make it a habit to visit a local bookstore (preferably used bookstore) and purchase a book that grabs my fancy.  Sometimes, it's a book I know about and have been meaning to read, but more often, it's something I was previously unaware of and just happened to grab me in the moment).   For instance, recently while wandering a flea market, I couldn't resist "That Was Then, This Is Now" by S. E. Hinton, which will join my small pile of books by my bed that I read before bed.

So those are the "rules" or the ways in which I negotiate my bookshelf and keep my house from becoming a supreme fire hazard. 

What are you rules or ways of keeping books?

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