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The battle of the bookshelves

There are a lot of reasons to disagree at the moment. We can argue endlessly about the advantages and disadvantages of COVID lockdowns, whether to get vaccinated (YES!), and how humans can mitigate climate change.

But I have just found a bookish point of contention that might even be more frustrating than any of the above debates: the organisation of books on a bookshelf.

To mark Book Lovers Day last month, the UK government released a survey of how books should be arranged.

A whopping 43 per cent of respondents answered that their bookcases WERE NOT ORGANISED IN ANY WAY.

So, that means that a lot of British booklovers are left to comb their shelves endlessly trying to locate that copy of Jane Eyre or Circle of Friends. This lack of order and laissez faire approach to shelving books makes me feel extremely anxious. Didn’t these people learn about the Dewey Decimal system in primary school library classes? How can they ignore those lessons and put their books on the shelf willy nilly? I think I might have more in common with the everyday anti-vaxxer than this lot.

The next most common response was that books were arranged by genre, which attracted 23 per cent of respondents. That’s fine, but HOW MANY GENRES DO PEOPLE OWN?

Sure, I’ve got a few biographies and crime novels in among the general fiction, and a mishmash of old university texts, dictionaries and parenting guides (fat lot of good they were) is shoved on a shelf far from eye height and any usable part of the bookcase, but what else are people shelving by genre?

Do people still have rows of Encyclopedia Britannica or Lonely Planet guides taking up space on their bookshelves? Does the romance lover also have a considerable stock of military books, or vice versa? It brings to mind the orderliness of a bookshop, but surely the average home does not hold enough books from different genres that it is necessarily to arrange them in this way. And do these people separate out their books by genre but leave the fiction section in chaotic disarray?

The third most common answer was that Brits arranged their books by size. Yes, BY SIZE!! I haven’t heard anything as ridiculous since the bizarre interior decoration trend of storing books with their spines facing inwards emerged. It seems like a completely random decision to order books by size. Again, how would you ever find a particular book you are looking for?

It is not until the fourth entry on the list that the English started talking sense. Finally, here are people who arrange books alphabetically by author. However, this sane proportion of respondents was only 11 per cent of people surveyed.

I count myself I this group for a few reasons. It makes it easy for me to locate a book I am looking for, it makes it easier for others to find books, it allows me to group books by the same author – and which often have a similar look – together … and it just makes sense. I love knowing where to find a Sebastian Faulks, a Liane Moriarty or a Pat Barker and once I’ve read it, I like to cast my eyes along the shelves to find the right spot. There’s Ian McEwan next to Rohinton Mistry and Mark Brandi next to Geraldine Brooks. There is order, but also strange bedfellows with Ayn Rand possibly sitting too close to John Steinbeck for comfort.

At least I can take some solace in that former Angela Merkel felt as surprised as I did by the results of the survey, posting on Twitter her preference for organising books in alphabetical order by author.

I guess I just have to resign myself to the fact that I will never understand other people and their decisions, especially when it comes to arranging books.

UK government survey on Book Lovers Day revealed booklovers organise their books:

No organisation 43%

By genre 23%

By size 21%

Alphabetically by author 11%

Read or not 8%

Other 5%

Alphabetically by title 3%

By colour 2%

Don’t know 2%

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