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Miranda: For the love of books

Warning. This post contains an unusually intense degree of navel-gazing and otherwise raving on and on about one’s home library and related minutiae. If you find such material nauseating, turn away now. I warned you!

On Friday, I posted this on Facebook:

Miranda Hersey Helin is staging a serious overhaul of the home library/office today, with Mom’s help. The question is — and please don’t cringe, fellow bibliophiles — shelve the books by author last name, or by jacket color? I know, I know….but I peruse and admire many design blogs and must admit that books shelved by color look fabulous. Although I’m not sure I can bring myself to mix genres…!

I was amused by the considerable volume of responses. People feel VERY strongly about how to organize their books — as well they should. This is serious business, people!

rainbowWhen I first heard of organizing books by color, I thought the premise was among the most ridiculous things I’d ever heard of. Not to mention sacrilegious. The whole idea sounded like “book as prop,” in the way that a professional decorator might buy small decorative things for a client’s room simply because they look nice against the wallpaper; nothing whatsoever to do with the item’s meaning or symbolism or its emotional value to the owner. Just “stuff.” Books, of course, are not “stuff.” Ew.

But over time, I came across more instances of books organized by color that really looked beautiful. Not just a stack of three yellow books next to a yellow vase, but shelves organized wholesale by color. Still, how would you ever find anything if you didn’t organize all of your books by genre and then by author last name?

When we moved into our new home in February of this year, I was thrilled to unpack my books and various possessions into our new library. I very vaguely segregated the books by nonfiction and fiction, intending to properly sort out the shelves, alphabetize my collection, and arrange all of my non-book items in the near future. Eight months later, the time finally arrived. My mother had given me a birthday coupon for a day’s worth of organizational help (and, most importantly, moral support) so I booked my sitter for an extra day, and on Friday my mother and I tackled the library. (It seemed indulgent to pay for babysitting in order to overhaul my library/home office, but considering that my mother and I worked all day long on Friday, and then I spent the better part of the weekend finishing the job myself, I know that this never would have happened if I hadn’t paid for the extra help.)

So, alphabet or color? I was intrigued by the color principle, and I had to try it. (Obviously, by the photo I ran above, there isn’t much question about which way I went.) I can’t believe HOW LONG it took to sort all the books, but we did it. (All those “taupe” books — are they gray? Are they brown? Are they off-white?) It was a LOT of fun, I have to admit. And I came to realize fairly early on that finding a specific book was not going to be a problem. But more on that later.

I also went through ever drawer and bin, sorting out all of my office supplies. I weeded out tons of stuff I don’t need or want. I filed every stack of paper. I found (or created) logical homes for all those little things that you pick up and say “what do I do with THIS?”

I now have a desk that I can actually use! I paid bills sitting at the desk last night, and everything I needed was in arm’s reach. My art supplies are organized in the hall closet around the corner, as there just isn’t room for everything in one place. But it all works.

The basic footprint of the room hasn’t changed (months ago, we tried many different arrangements of the furniture, but nothing else worked). I did change out a yucky fiberboard bookshelf for a marginally better, longer bookshelf made by my ex-husband. (No, you can’t have it back!) Please ignore the hospital-style table on wheels (it’s one of the most practical things I own, and I use it all the time).





Desk corner before:


Desk corner after:


Considering that relatively little actually changed, aside from clearing out all the clutter, I can’t entirely explain the magic that this room now holds. I FREAKING LOVE IT. I want to be in here all the time. Yes, I’m in here now, typing on my laptop at my desk. I swear, it’s as if Mr. Roy G. Biv turned the room into a bowl of M&M’s. Very cozy at night, too:



So here’s my case for organizing books by color. In the first “after” photo above, fiction comprises the vertical shelf on the far right and the white shelf up the middle. That’s not really so many books. If I’m looking for a particular title, it’s not going to be hard to find even if I can’t remember the color of its spine. This is the only place I have adult fiction aside from my “to read” shelf on the other wall. The books to the left in the same photo are general nonfiction (biography, autobiography, and history). Again, these are mixed together, but it’s not a lot of shelf space for me to peruse if I need something. The fifth shelf is poetry.

On the other wall, books are broken down by genre. I have a shelf for editorial reference, a shelf for art reference, a shelf for books about writing, a shelf for books about creativity, a shelf for parenting, a shelf for self-help & metaphysical (yes, I have that many self-help and metaphysical books). There’s another shelf of semi-mixed nonfiction; a little chunk of current political books, a chunk of animal-related training books, a chunk of sports-related books, a section for gardening. Then there is the to-read shelf, as well a short fiction and plays. And so on.

For each of these subsections, I organized books by color and shape, depending on what looked best for each shelf. Again, I’m not going to have trouble finding anything because I know what each subsection is, and no single subsection is more than a shelf long.

So, now that I’ve dealt with the question of “how will you find anything?” I’ll get to why I think this is such a fabulous way to organize your books. First, a book is so much more than words on a page, or the author’s position in an alphabet. A book is a piece of art — even an old Bantam mass-market paperback — and to my mind, organizing books this way is something that honors each book as art. Positioning each book on a shelf in a way that maximizes its beauty (almost as “paint”) rather than by the name of the person who wrote it seems to me a more potent way to celebrate the beauty of a personal library. The shelves are pleasing and peaceful, without losing the vaguely chaotic and cozy look that is inherent in any library. The color progression is so eye-catching that I think it actually calls more attention to the books, not less — without dominating. What do you think?

The downside to having a dream library/work environment is this: There is pretty much no excuse left on the planet for not coming up with something brilliantly creative. I seem to have run out of excuses. And I DID just use an entire weekend’s worth of “free” moments to finish the room. Time to get to back to the writing 🙂

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. yes, it’s pretty. but i thought your office was gorgeous before the invasion of Rainbow Brite. lol!

    i am still mystified by not using dewey decimal, as i mentioned more vehemently on fb.

    but if it clearing your head so much so to sit in that space and work, pay bills and write becomes joyous, then i’m happy it worked for you.

    October 5, 2009
  2. saw your post on fb, miranda. interesting to see the finished product! and if i remember correctly when you guys took that little quickie true colors quiz, miranda was a green/gold? that comes through VERY strongly in the way you chose to organize your library and in your justification of it. 🙂 me being the strong orange/blue…i have books all over the house, no random organizing, no separation by genre or alpha order or non-fiction vs fiction. basically just what happens to fit on that particular shelf in that particular room. glad this works for you!

    so, you wanna come organize my pantry? though between me and benjamin, we’d undoubtedly trash it in a week. 🙂

    October 5, 2009
  3. kell, i forgot what i came up….what would my need for dewey decimal on my book shelves fit…including the book overflow and and mess of gegaws?

    October 5, 2009
  4. Juliet #

    Oh WOW! Sooooo pretty! Yes, so much more soothing – good for calming the daily stresses to let the creativity out. WTG Little Mama!

    October 5, 2009
  5. Oooooh, I absolutely LOVE it!!! And I’m also extremely jealous.


    October 5, 2009
  6. !!!wow!!!
    just gorgeous …
    if i had time, i’d de alphabetize my library and color code it!
    that top pic is particularly stunning ….

    October 5, 2009
  7. Wow. I have to admit I was skeptical of the color plan, but it looks awesome.

    October 5, 2009
  8. This is beautiful and inspiring, Miranda. I LOVE it. You’re making me want to re-decorate my study space, although mine is much smaller and is shared with costumes and puppets. 🙂 Still, I’m motivated by looking at your space, to make mine more soothing and vibrant.

    October 5, 2009
  9. Liz #

    Now I am regretting donating all my old books to the library. Love it!

    October 6, 2009
  10. It’s bold and beautiful! I love the section of half orange and half white Penguin books.

    October 6, 2009
  11. Brittany Vandeputte #

    I love it too! I think I was a green/gold, too (Kelly? Do you remember?) And what you’ve done to your bookshelves speaks to my soul. Oh, to curl up in that room and never leave!

    October 6, 2009
  12. Thanks, guys. I realize this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — and maybe the novelty will wear off — bit for now, it’s worth it.

    For the record, the room is exceptionally photogenic and actually looks better in these photos than it does in person, lol. Even my husband said, “Wow! The space looks even better in your photos than it does in real life!” Not that I’m complaining. It’s just that the camera lens seems to exaggerate things a little.

    Still, Terri, I’m actually jealous of myself, if that makes any sense. I am consciously grateful of my surroundings every single day. If the market hadn’t tanked, we never would have been able to buy this house. It sat empty for two years and was owned by a relo company when we bought it — the process was a bear, but we got a good deal. At least, we think so. When it’s February again and I can’t get up my ridiculous driveway and AAA has to come and tow me out of my own snowbank for the third time in a week, I’ll remember how we got this great “deal”…

    October 6, 2009
  13. Kelly, I can’t remember what my color combo was, but I think I was the same as someone here — Brittany, as I recall?

    October 6, 2009
  14. Kristine #

    Miranda, I love your library. Wow! I would never leave.

    I never thought about sorting books by color. It looks great! What a fantastic space. I’m jealous, too!

    October 6, 2009
  15. emmajaner #

    Oh my gosh, this is so cool!

    Sadly, if I went down this path, I know I’d feel compelled to arrange them the way I arrange my pastels in their box – according not only to hue but to value aswell. And I suspect that would suck up a VERY scary amount of my time …!!

    Oh, but I am tempted …

    October 15, 2009

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