Are You Bugged When People Organize Books By Color?
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I Did Not Understand How Many People Are Bothered by Books Organized By Color
In mid-December, I shared some Instagram Stories about the process of installing built-in shelves in our living room. One of the story-panels was a time-lapse of me filling the newly-built, painted-and-dried, bookshelves. I’m wearing pajamas and it’s a dark winter morning — you can see the light from the window change as the time lapse progresses, and the sun begins to rise. You can watch it in this Bookshelves Instagram Highlight if you’d like to see.
After sharing, I received a whole lot of comments from people saying how glad they were I didn’t organize the bookshelves by color.
This totally surprised me for two main reasons. 1) I honestly did not realize that some people had negative feelings about books being organized by color.
2) I realized a lot of people following along on Instagram these days are not familiar with my earlier homes (why would they be?), so they didn’t know I am actually a fan of organizing books by color. They didn’t know I wasn’t trying to make a statement about book organization when I filled my new shelves. I wasn’t trying to turn my nose up at a trend. I wasn’t trying to position myself as having strong opinions about book organization.
I felt like I had somehow mislead them into thinking I was on some sort of team that didn’t like styled bookshelves, or that I think that if you have styled shelves then you’re not actually a book reader. When really, if I’m on a bookshelf team at all, it’s this one: Having books in your house is awesome! Display/organize them however you wish.
When I filled my new bookshelves, I was simply making a deliberate design decision: In this house, on these shelves, with these books, I was going for a traditional-feeling, well-loved bookshelf, absolutely crammed with books.
And while I do love the look of a bookshelf crammed with books, I also really appreciate shelves organized by color, and have organized my books by color many times in many places we’ve lived. Here are a few images from our earlier houses, of books displayed by color. Our Reading Loft:
Our Family Room:
And here’s tiny Flora June on shelf way back when we lived in Colorado in 2010:
Most of the comments about books-by-color were pretty innocuous. But others I felt were quite misguided; deliberately looking down on book collections (and their owners) that are organized by color.
I think this thinking is very wrong. My experience is that color is a genuine way to organize books, or any other items. In fact, for my brain, finding books when they are organized by color is especially easy and helpful. When I’m looking for a book, my brain will picture the color and feel of the cover — the texture, the mood, the style, maybe the font — even if I don’t remember the title or author. My brain will try to visualize where I saw the book last, and if my books are organized by color, I can go right to the book I’m looking for, based on the picture in my head.
Obviously everybody’s brains work in different ways, so a visual organization method may not be a good fit for you. And that’s fine too. But however your brain works, organizing by color is not an indication that someone is not a book lover.
Cringeworthy, you say? I would say I find it cringeworthy when people attach morality to how someone organizes their personal book collection. Hah! I mean… it’s a personal library! It’s in someone’s private home, or their individual office space. There are probably only a few people besides you (or maybe no one but you!), who will ever need to find books on your personal library shelves. So you can organize your book collection, or don’t organize it, however you like.
Maybe you want to put all the books on the shelf with the spine facing backwards, so all you can see is the creamy pages; maybe you like things to feel really simple and relatively color-less, or you prefer the texture of the pages. Or maybe you read all your books on Kindle, and the books on your shelves are just pretty objects that you like to arrange and rearrange. Fine. Who cares? It’s your house and your books.
And even if a book is difficult for you to find on your shelves… so what? The worst thing that could happen is you have to scan several bookshelves. Having to spend a couple of minutes looking for a book is not a hard thing. In fact, it can be really pleasant, and a chance to see and remember books you haven’t thought of in awhile.
From a design perspective, I think of organizing books by color as a tool I can use when needed. It’s actually really hard to take a typical personal collection of books, and make it look pretty or appealing or put together. Organizing by color can help solve that issue really quickly and satisfyingly. It’s for sure the fastest and easiest way to make a chaotic room feel more calm and collected.
Is it a trend? Maybe. But since I’ve been seeing color-organized bookshelves for well over a decade, perhaps it’s moved past a trend, and has simply become an organizing option. And even if you do consider it a trend, well, it can be both a trend and an effective organizing tool at the same time.
But of course, it depends on what sort of look and feel you’re trying to create in a given space. To me, color-organized books tend to feel more modern. This was perfect in our Oakland house, but to my mind, doesn’t seem to fit as well in the Tall House living room.
So how are my books organized now? On the new built-in shelves? At the moment, the organization of our books is somewhat purposeful, and somewhat haphazard. There are sections — young adult, French, travel, picture books, travel, etc.. But the sections are loose, not strict, and most books could fit in more than one section. Plus, our books can move around quite a bit — they migrate to backpacks and nightstands and bedroom bookshelves. Because I have a visual memory, holding and looking at each book before I put it on the shelf, works very well for helping me remember where things are.
When I fill our shelves with books, I also have an overall organizing principle of putting books we read most or refer to most, within easier reach. And of course, anyone filling a shelf has to work with the constraints of book height and shelf height and what books fit on which shelves.
That may sound like a lot of thinking went into placing the books on the shelves, but really, I want to emphasize that organizing our home library is low stakes and not stressful to me at all. Again, if we have to scan a few shelves to find the right book (or even go to another room to find it), instead of going to it instantly, this is not a big deal and not something to stress or worry over.
If someone you know, let’s say a friend, organizes their books by color, please understand that’s a totally legitimate option. You don’t need to “be sad for the books” or think your friend is a “fake book lover”. Probably, they do it because it works best for their brain, and maybe they like the look of it. Or maybe they have young kids who can’t read yet, but can identify the book they want by color (and can more easily tidy up too!).
To be clear, this doesn’t mean YOU have to organize your books by color. It turns out your friend’s book organizing decisions don’t actually affect you at all.
Then again, if you’re never created a color-organized bookshelf, why not try it with a few books, and see how you like it? I can tell you, it’s a super satisfying exercise for a brain like mine. And it’s not just for books! Organizing by color can help in other ways too. My daughter Olive organized all the apps on her phone by color, and discovered she can find them much more quickly. I’ve also had good luck organizing my closet by color. I promise, it’s a legitimate, effective organization strategy; a tool you can use if and when you need it.
Your turn. Does this topic bring up strong feelings for you? Do you find yourself taking people who organize books by color less seriously? Or maybe you are a “serious reader” who organizes your books by color? Have you ever organized a collection of something besides books by color? Do you consider yourself to have a visual memory? Does the idea of remembering a book by color, but not by author or title, stress you out?
Lately On Design Mom
-A Budgeting Game I Made Up For Teens. It’s lots of fun, I promise. Maybe your kids will like it too.
-The home tour of Eleanor Mayrhofer, who grew up in L.A., but moved to Germany as an adult and has stayed 20 years. Her thoughts on what it’s like to live outside your home country for so long were really interesting to me.
-Sheet Pan Dinner — Roast Pork Tenderloin with Veggies. So easy and satisfying, it will become a family favorite.
Here Are A Few Things I’ve Wanted To Share
-Did The New Yorker see my Instagram in December? Lots of you sent me this article (thank you!) that they just published about organizing books by color. Hah!
-What inevitably happens when you incentivize criminalization of people for profit.
-The Guardian reports that women are 32% more likely to die after an operation performed by male surgeon. Yikes.
-I like this.
That’s all for now. Feel free to comment on anything I mentioned above, or whatever’s on your mind. I hope you have a lovely weekend.