27 December 2016 Susannah

A Book Collector’s Pleasure


One of the great pleasures of being a book collector is seeing your books on a shelf and mulling over memories of reading them. However, one of the biggest challenges of being a book collector is where to place each book on a shelf. I do sometimes move my books around, dithering over the best place for each one. Here are a few ways of arranging books you might like to consider for your home:

 By genre. This is what bookshops and libraries tend to do. But you still have to decide where each genre should go – does Poetry sit on a top shelf, while biography takes up lower and more easily accessible shelves? And what about those over- sized volumes that refuse to fit with the rest of their genre?

 Alphabetical. It certainly makes a book easy to find when you arrange from A for Austen to Z for Zola, but when you come home from the shop with a new Margaret Atwood, the entire collection has to be shifted along to make room for it. And if you forget the name of the person who wrote that history book, you have a real problem.

Favourites. This is the scheme where you give authors you prefer the most prominent positions. I favour this method and have one whole bookcase dedicated to Jane Austen – various editions with different illustrations, books about her books and her world, biographies of her life etc. This can cause decision-making issues. Should Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of JA go into the JA collection, or be shelved with Tomalin’s other biographies (and should those other biographies be shelved alphabetically under D for her Dickens book and M for her Katherine Mansfield biography?)

Publishers. Does one keep all those classic Penguins in a row – an orange row, and a blue row etc?

Size. It was by size that Samuel Pepys arranged much of his superb library. To some extent we all have to consider size, because there will always be that awkward large volume that refuses to fit nicely.

Colour. This is a method much favoured by interior designers, who create amazing rainbow effects by merging blue spines into green, yellow into orange. But surely a nightmare when trying to find a volume and you cannot remember what colour the cover is?

Whatever your preferred method of book arranging is, you will probably have the perennial problem faced by all book lovers – not enough shelf space! I have book shelves all over the house (in all rooms except the bathroom), which means I also have to decide whether a book should stay downstairs (where it can be admired by guests, and is most easily saved in case of fire), or upstairs where it might feel demoted to a back room and therefore less loved. I dream of a library, with large squashy sofa, roaring fire, and every wall lined with shelves. I also dream of one day being able to arrange my books by the ‘Jeffrey Archer Method’, i.e. multiple versions of books written by me, arranged according to their many editions, translations and DVD versions. Well, dreams are free …

How do you arrange your books?  I’d love to hear your ideas, please leave a comment.


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Comments (2)

  1. Anna Maria

    After many years of reading and collecting I shelf my books in alphabetical order by genre (classic fiction pre-modernist, modernist classics, contemporary fiction sourced from English speaking cultures around the world, Italian fiction, Australian fiction, poetry, literary criticism and literary reference books, mythology, shelves devoted to Shakespeare and Jane Austen, works about other authors, literary biographies, English history, Italian history, French history, American history, history from other nations, general social history, cultural studies/sociology, philosophy, science, film studies, art history, artist/museum collections requiring larger height shelving, reference books – located in my study. These are not displayed to any visitor only to those who are invited to enter my private world of study. Cookbooks, popular fiction, travel books, current affairs, biographies and autobiographies, health and well-being, self-help/psychology are placed within a bookcase in the family room downstairs for anyone to see or pick up. If a visitor tries to make a character study from my collection downstairs they are sorely disappointed – my authentic self and passions are to be found on my private study shelves.

    I use the various dilemmas posed to force myself to make the most difficult decision a book collector can face – when to let go of a work that no longer fits or has been superceded by new research. Unfortunately, I initially stack my dilemmas up on my study shelves until I can no longer stand the mess around me – then I finally cull and cleanse and I’m struck again by the beauty of the knowledge contained within my collection.

    The book collector knows that books are not only bought to be instantly read but to be added to the library for dipping into at leisure.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I could not agree more! The true book collector may take years to get around to actually reading a book, but just knowing it is sitting there waiting is all part of the pleasure. I was intrigued by your comments about shelving your books. Somehow it does really matter as to where in a house a particular book sits – upstairs or downstairs, in a public space or a private one. It is so easy to judge someone just by the books you see in their lounge, so you have reminded me to be more cautious about that. So many treasures can be tucked away in bedrooms which truly reveal the character of the book collector. And yes, letting go, is definitely the hardest part of all. Happy New Year and may 2017 be filled with good books.

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