Friday 27 March 2020

An organised shelf is a happy shelf

Like a large part of the world's population right now, I am in 'lockdown' mode as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic, doing my part to help reduce the spread of the infection through the community where I live by working from home and staying indoors (unlike all those members of the community in vital jobs like medicine and food distribution who are the heroes of the moment).

It's tough at time, but as the aphorism goes, when you're given lemons ... . So, I've had much more time on my hands to spend with my books: not just my collection of Deighton books, but all the books on my shelves. And one way to use that excess spare time is to get round to dusting and, more importantly, re-arranging the books on my shelves.

Here's the result for bookshelf one, which was certainly an improvement on how it looked befor:

Taking all the books off the shelf, putting them into different category and size piles, then putting them back in a new way was a very satisfying thing to do. It didn't achieve anything or immeasurably improve my life, but I was glad I did it, so much so that I then proceeded to go through all my other shelves.


It got me thinking, why did I spend the time doing this, and not something else? Why did I choose one way of arranging my books, while other people choose alternative ways of arranging theirs.

As is the modern way, I went online and did an search on the internet for 'the psychology of tidy bookshelves'. And wouldn't you know it: page after page of blog posts, magazine articles, social media post, all about why people have, or don't have, tidy shelves (general, and book).

This article, for example, in House Beautiful magazine (not, I might add, a regular read, but just one of the search results I clicked on) suggests that the way you stack your books tells you something about who you are and how you think. While I don't give much credence to the psychological and intellectual underpinnings of House Beautiful, the broad idea is right. Indeed, how your or I perform any activity - tying our shoes, buying clothes, doodling on a blank page - is likely to offer some insight into how you think and approach life.

So, as a book collector, who enjoys reading, looking at, handling, admiring and searching for books - especially, given the nature of this site, the works of Len Deighton - it made me pause for thought over coffee about what my books shelf style says about me, and why - in this current global pandemic - spending quality time with your books can be helpful and fulfilling. (Though, of course, while fun, it's no replacement for the current lack of human contact many of us around the world face!)

Your books are an important part of your life
They're not as important as family, health, mental well-being, no, of course not. But books of whatever kind - spy novels, cook books, picture books, coffee table books - serve to nourish the soul and stimulate the mind. I know on each of the seven book shelves I own that, having curated every book on them, I know that in times like the present, when I have more time in the house, I'll find something I want to read and will feel comfortable losing myself in.

Tidying a bookshelf can throw up surprises.
By tidying up four bookshelves of various books, I discovered I had duplicate copies of three first editions of books (one a Deighton, but two from other collections). I wouldn't ordinarily buy two copies of a book if I didn't need to, so I wondered: why had I done that. A few thoughts: as one gets older, clearly, the mind doesn't remember as much as when you were 15. So, simple forgetfulness.
It might also point to the fact that, prior to this tidying up, my shelves were disordered, and these duplicates - which I might have spotted if the collection were logical and ordered - would have come to light earlier. I also pondered on another source: the modern ease with which buying books, especially collectable books, can create a degree of laziness in the collector and encourage purchases where you just 'might not be sure' you have the book, without first actually checking if you do. If nothing else, that's money I could be saving right there in those three books (value about £55).

The de-cluttering phenomenon can apply to books, too
2019 was the year the Marie Kondo effect became a world-wide revolution, apparently. "Tidying can transform your life." I wouldn't go that far, but certainly I can see how a concentration on a specific task, the creation or order and harmony (for example, having all the book spine titles reading the same way) can de-stress and generally bring a smile to your face. Ms Kondo has created ire among book collectors for her throwaway approach to books and generated a meme war. Like all things on social media, it's more heat and light but was certainly funny for the most part. I don't get the impression she is anti-book, perhaps more anti keeping books just for the sake of keeping them.

But is that what collectors do? I don't think so. There is purpose to their collecting (their certainly is to mine, which is personal to me, specific, not motivated by monetary value, and tied to specific, long-standing interests which I intend to continue pursuing). However, I have known collectors who - through having any strategic focus to their collecting - perhaps might benefit from a little of Ms Kondo's teaching. But, only a little.

I certainly found it satisfying to re-group all my Bernard Samson ennealogy books together - UK, US and German first editions - on a shelf at eye level, as these are my favourite books and, on reflection, it felt odd that they had been scattered on different shelves. Now, there is a nice degree of orderliness and finality to it: these books, and others in different collections, just should be together.

People like to show off
I admit: I like people to look at my bookshelves, and my different collections. Books, I guess, send positive signals to friends, partners, acquaintances that you have something about you, you have some heft, you're, as the phrase says, 'well read'.

With social media, this has become something of a phenomenon - and indeed, perhaps this post is ironically emblematic of the growth in 'humblebragging', using memes like #Showusyoushelves,where people post up images of their bookscases, as I have done, online. 

What does it mean? Is it bad? I don't think so. Is it showing off? Probably. Does it harm anyone? No. It could be all these things and many more. I'm sure I get a frisson of pleasure when someone makes positive comments about my shelves, my collections, my choices, my interests. Who wouldn't.

Tidying helps protect your books from damage
I spotted a number of my Deightons - especially one or two with the red ink on the spine, red being especially vulnerable - were showing signs of fading, so I moved them down to a shelf more out of the light. But it's not just spines; it's only when books are taken out and inspected that you can spot signs of partial fading, where the extent of the fade is determined by the books immediately contiguous to that particular book. This can lead to some unfortunate effects.

In some cases, I've simply turned the books spine inwards. It makes them hard to identify, but until I can come up with a long-term solution, that's my play.

It reminds you of long-forgotten gems
Just through the simple process of tidying, I've put aside two or three books I've not looked at in years, to reacquaint myself and be reminded why I purchased it in the first place. Rare is it that I will look upon a book and think, 'why am I keeping that?'

All in all, there is no science to a book shelf, It's an extension of a person's personality, so it will always be flawed, erratic, and incomplete.

Ms Kondo's tidyness extremism isn't for this collector, but the general lesson I took from this morning of tidying was that it's always good to spend time with your books!


  1. This is a fantastic post. I had not thought of all the aspects of organizing book shelves or the psychology of that task. Very interesting.

    I am extremely envious of your Deighton bookshelves.

  2. I used to have first editions of a few of the first editions of Fleming's James bond hardbacks, when I purchased them when they were published starting from 1953 to 1960, when I was a university student. I kept them neatly in my small book shelf, until,they were borrowed one by one from friends,and they never came back. Now, I have so many other books,and it will take me ages to organise them in my many shelves.
    But, I am spending my Covid-19 lockdown days, reading articles like what happened,in the Summer of 1945, after Germany surrendered. A nice Der Spiegel article, published recently on the occasion of 75 years afterthe Germany 's surrender: Very informative. 1945 Summer, saw a sea of change with Churchill's Conservative party defeated in the GE,etc..