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Organizing a bookshelf

December 09, 2022 — Asher Wycoff

I own two bookshelves, both of the $35, flat-pack, five shelf variety, one from Target and one from a generic wholesaler. Each has been outfitted with a sixth shelf, which was easy to procure from the wholesaler by lying and telling them that my shipment was missing a shelf. Target was not responsive to this maneuver, so I had to order a custom shelf, which cost nearly as much as the bookcase itself. In any case, I've got two bookshelves of approximately the same size, which together provide approximately enough space for the books I have at home. The question, then, is how to arrange them.


There are a few obvious options: alphabetical by author, chronological by author, or by subject. There are also some physical constraints: not every shelf gives the same vertical clearance, and not every shelf can be adjusted. I started from this vertical constraint: to maximize space on other shelves, I've dedicated one shelf on each bookcase to relatively squat books. I generally bristle at the idea of organizing books by their external characteristics (color, size, etc.) rather than author or content, but in this case it's a practical necessity. Fortunately, most of my very squat books are of a type (holy books, plays, poetry, and fiction paperbacks) outside of the academic nonfiction that makes up the rest of my library, so it doesn't bother me too much.

The rest is a bit haphazard. On one shelf, I start the top shelf with language reference books, then move to "canon" in political theory, organized chronologically. This brings us through the top three shelves. Outside of this, most things are arranged roughly by subject, then alphabetically by author, and chronologically for each author. This begins on the next shelf, which is for older, general history paperbacks (relatively squat ones), one shelf for Jewish studies, and the bottom shelf for general philosophy.

The other bookshelf has its top two shelves taken up by books either bought for or directly relevant to the dissertation. The third shelf from the top is feminist and queer studies, which is given the most vertical space to accommodate Leslie Feinberg's towering Transgender Warriors. The shelf directly beneath that is given the least vertical space, and it's where the Bible, Quran, a couple pocket Shakespeares, and various literary paperbacks live. It also holds Soviet Bus Stops, because I didn't know where else to put that. Beneath that is a general purpose social science shelf, and on the bottom are binders of print-outs, music books, and comics collections.

I'm not thrilled with this organization. One major change I've been considering is dispersing the dissertation-related books throughout the shelves, and it's one I will probably commit to by the time I defend or deposit. This would require thinking through subject categorization a bit more carefully, which invites its own concerns. Isolating "Jewish studies" and "women's studies" to their own shelves is a matter of some ambivalence, given that the distinction isn't always clear between "particular" subjects and "general interest," and maintaining such a distinction risks implying the former has less import than the latter. Does The Second Sex really belong on the "feminism" shelf, for instance, or should it be grouped with the canon? (For now, I've assuaged my concerns about ghettoizing Beauvoir by demoting Sartre from the canon to "general philosophy.")

The other issue with having a "canon" section is whether to include secondary literature with the primary authors, and where to make that distinction. I've gone back and forth on this. For now, some secondary literature I particularly like or don't have another place for comes immediately after the primary authors, but this is internally messy, as the "primary" authors are often building on or referencing each other. (What the hell is Marx's Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right if not secondary literature on Hegel's Philosophy of Right?) I might abandon the secondary literature idea, or abandon a discrete "canon" section altogether.

In a previous life, my secondary bookshelf was an IKEA Kallax®™ with cubby-like square compartments, which I got from a colleague when he moved to Berlin. It has long since collapsed under the weight of time, but the cubby shelves provided something I've been missing. One cubby was designated the "shame cube" and reserved for books I had bought but not yet read. I set a rule that when the shame cube was full, I could not buy any more books. As I awake from the dissertation haze and begin reading for pleasure again, I should try to reinstitute something like that.

tags: books