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10 August 2021updated 25 Jan 2023 2:38pm

I thought I knew where I sat on the bookcase debate – but the random approach has taken me by surprise

A YouGov poll shows most people put little thought into how their bookshelves are organised. That’s how it should be.

By Rachel Cunliffe

How do you organise your bookshelves? Do you go by genre? Author? Size? Or – god forbid – colour?

Monday 9 August marked National Book Lovers Day, and in honour of this event, YouGov repromoted a poll conducted just before the pandemic. According to the results from autumn 2019, Brits are split over how to arrange a bookcase, with a strong showing for by genre and size and a still significant number for by author, while 43 per cent of book owners shun organisation altogether.

I wonder, however, if the polling might throw up different results if conducted again now, after nearly a year and a half of video calls which have put our living spaces on display for the whole world to see.

I know first-hand the pressure to put forward and impressive bookcase. In the early days of the pandemic when I was living in a sparsely furnished rental cottage, the lack of books in shot was commented on whenever I went on TV (so much so that I ended up piling cook books up behind me to make a point). I wouldn’t be surprised if Brits today put a bit more thought into how their books stack up, knowing they’ll be seen by colleagues every time there’s a Zoom meeting.

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Now back home, I am very much championing the 43 per cent who go for lawless disorder. The haphazardly stacked bookcases in my own Zoom background, shelves creaking under the weight of books crammed in every which way, have become something of a running joke on Twitter.

But I have a confession to make: this is very little to do with me. I’m really more of a Kindle girl, willingly relinquishing the joy of turning pages for the convenience being able to carry 3,000 books at the weight of a paperback, read one-handed standing up on a rush-hour Tube, and take an entire library with me when travelling. Not that long ago, my home contained just a handful of actual physical books, most of them either gifts or relics from university.

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Then my partner moved in to my small London flat, bringing with him over two thousand books (just a third of his total collection, he tells me, the rest being in storage) and an approach to bookshelf management that can best be described as “if it fits, it sits”. Thus books in our household are arranged primarily along the lines of Tetris, with the goal being to cram as many in as is humanly possible.

This leads to a rather eclectic visage for the casual viewer: airport thrillers by Jo Nesbo and Lee Child sit side by side with arcane philosophy, literary classics such as Simon Raven and Dorothy L Sayers are flanked by remnants of the complete canon of Terry Pratchett, cook books from every cuisine known to man compete for space with Ian Fleming, pop psychology and poetry collections about cats. There are a few deliberate juxtapositions (the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette placed in close proximity to an illustrated practical guide to knots, for example), but for the most part chaos and serendipity rule supreme.

Had someone asked me before this bibliophilic invasion how shelves ought to be organised, I would probably have sided with the 23 per cent of Brits who arrange by genre, or possibly the more meticulous 11 per cent who go alphabetically by author. How else can you expect to find anything? But after over a year of sharing my home with approximately one million paper pages, I have come to love the randomness of the disorganised bookshelf. My partner, whose memory in every other area of life is somewhat patchy, is remarkably adept at recalling which books live where, while I enjoy imagining a Dick Francis novel making friends with How To Eat Out by Giles Coren – two books that would normally never have met.

And there is another unexpected benefit to the random approach: it defies attempts to pigeonhole me based on reading material. At the start of the pandemic Michael Gove was castigated for a photo of his bookcase displaying a book from the Holocaust denier David Irving. Other carefully arranged shelves to have drawn national attention include Nicola Sturgeon’s assortment of Ian Rankin thrillers (how does Scotland’s First Minister have time for so much detective fiction?) and Dominic Raab’s assembly of hefty tomes on conservative icons such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan that suggested a man more interested in books for their ability to bolster his reputation than in actually reading them. A carefully arranged bookcase reveals the owner’s priorities: you can spot what they’ve chosen to highlight (so often copies of their own books, if they’ve written them), and equally telling, what’s missing. It’s impossible to read anything into my anarchic literary backdrop, other than that I live with someone who would give Marie Kondo a heart attack.

I try not to judge those who take a different approach to their shelves. Organising by colour seems bizarre to me (books are for reading, not decorating, after all), but I have to admit it looks great on Instagram. I also have no time for snobbery about physical versus digital books – ultimately, how someone chooses to read is up to them. More important, surely, is that people own books at all, of whatever kind, and continue to enjoy reading.

But having discovered the joys of the chaotic and overfilled bookcase, I don’t think I could ever go back. As the best-selling author Anthony Horowitz told me in a recent interview: “Books are like doors… and you can travel through that door into other worlds.” How wonderful, especially in a pandemic, to have thousands of open doors in one place.

[See also: The essential non-fiction books of 2021]