Roundtable on the Zen of Organizing Books

One last spin-off from yesterday’s discussion on organizing books

Jonathan Strahan

It probably says something deeply disturbing about me, but there is something incredibly satisfying, almost on at a DNA level, about putting books in their place. When I finally amalgamated a lot of shelves and for the first time all thirteen volumes of The Collected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon sat together I felt a zen-like calm descend on me, settling something that I hadn’t even known had been bothering me since 1997.

Gary K. Wolfe

Um, bookcases as Zen gardens? Do you rake them into pleasing patterns from time to time?

Ellen Datlow

I worked part time as a librarian at SUNY at Albany as an undergrad. I loved putting books into their proper places. I still do it when I see them in stores misfiled. It drives me crazy to see books out of order (except in my own apt).

Cat Rambo

Having worked in many a bookstore, I find myself frequently rearranging or tidying up shelves when shopping in one.

Russell Letson

Don’t know about Zen gardens, but there is something very satisfying about expressing order through storage/display schemes. When I was quite young, most of my hoard of books could fit into a single foot-long desktop shelf my father built for me. I had bought my first paperback in sixth grade, a Cardinal edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and I gradually added other, mostly fantastic or mystery paperbacks, found through the TAB Book Club pages of My Weekly Reader. I would fiddle around with various ways of arranging them. At that time, different publishers’s lines had different-colored edges–yellow, red, blue–in addition to the two sizes (Pockets were short, Signets were tall, Bantams could be either, depending on how old they were), and I remember lining them up according to size or edge color. (One categorical matter not expressed directly in shelving was price–$.25 vs $.35 books. Only when I started mowing lawns to supplement my allowance did that distinction begin to matter less. Sometimes I even alphabetized them, but that lacked decorative élan.

Karen Burnham

On the Zen Garden front: several years ago I was on a business trip to Lincoln Labs in Massachusetts. It was my first time presenting to a room full of not-my-co-worker engineers, and I sort of muffed it. (Froze for a minute at the beginning of the talk. It was probably only 20 seconds of dead air, but it felt like 20 minutes. Only time I’ve ever frozen up like that.) After the meeting, I went up to visit my brother and his wife in Maine. He’d just finished building shelves into a spare room to make a library room. As they were turning in, and I was still rattled so I asked “Do you mind if I organize your library?” My brother looked at me like I was insane, and his wife looked thrilled, so I spent three very happy hours alphabetizing his collection. He had some good stuff, including some early 50s editions of Bester. It was all very therapeutic.

One thought on “Roundtable on the Zen of Organizing Books

  • December 11, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Seeing this discussion brings a happy smile to my face. I just finished moving bookcases around in my two ‘library’ rooms as my friends call them and moving a few thousand books. It started off as just putting the last hundred or so books I’ve read away in their proper place but it turned into a complete re-arrangement. As I was putting my books away once I got everything moved I was thinking of this very subject. Except for the reading part, I am probably at my happiest when I am cleaning my bookshelves and putting my books in their proper places. When I finished there is such a zen-like peace in my rooms with the smell of wood polish and old dust.

    Oh and thank you, I’m not the only one then who gets driven a bit batty in bookstores when books are put out of place or just tossed onto the shelves laying this way and that. On more than one occasion I’ve had people ask me questions about books in a bookstore as I was straightening a book or two when I was browsing and I of course I was more than willing to help them out.


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