Quieting My Shelves


I have done something I would have considered heretical only a few weeks ago.  But, there was a little itch just under my skin and, uncomfortable though it was, I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
I hesitate to admit it . . . but I will.  

Our books were driving me crazy.  Our books.  Which we choose to schlep around the world with us, at no small weight.  Our books.  Which we have acquired and curated and culled.  Our books.  Which I have read, and re-read to my children, to myself, and they to themselves.  

I finally accepted these two truths.  I love our books.  But, they were making me crazy.

Stretching across the most prominent wall in our living space, these friends of mine suddenly felt as though they were shouting at me.  Not a friendly hello, but a cacophony of voices.  Spine after competing spine of colors and pictures and words.  It was too much.

Not only were these books making me crazy, but, I realized that they had been for some time now.  Ignoring it had only caused another problem.  Because there was all this noise, I was routinely tuning it out.  The same loud voice yapping on the shelf, beside the same book it had been beside for years.  In whatever country they found themselves, they stood in that same order.  My efforts to alphabetize and categorize had resulted in stale background noise.

I needed to quiet the din so I could hear the individual voices again.   I was craving tranquility in this room, and I knew I would have to still the books.

The only trouble?  How.  How to quiet them?  How to bring them to a place of still?  

I knew the answer but I hesitated.  Because it was a crazy idea.  Because it was impractical.  Because it reduced my books to mere decorating objects (the worst crime of all).  But, I knew I needed to do it.

I had to rearrange them all by color.  This thing that I scoffed at for years.  This thing that only Philistines do to their books.  This signal of an unserious reader—to organize your books by color.  

This is what I must do.

Can I pause for a moment just to acknowledge how much judgement was going into this decorating choice?  That I must sort books by subject, and by author because that is what a serious reader does.  I must communicate my intelligence through my bookshelf.  And, by extension, if you don’t do the same, you're exposed as a literary barbarian.  So, on that level, I’m grateful for a noisy bookshelf that shook me out of my smugness.


I dipped my toe slowly into this new current, with just the picture books.  They had been arranged by subject, but not by author, so this didn’t seem too threatening.  And, though my anxiety levels did rise just a bit when I intermingled history and poetry and math side by side, I persevered with the experiment.  With two little helpers at my side, we had transformed our picture books into a work of art themselves.  They did feel calmer.  And, simultaneously, more alive.

Books that hadn’t been pulled from the shelves for years were suddenly being read.  I heard so many exclamations of “I forgot we even had this book” that I lost track of them all.  Mixing things up both settled and enlivened the whole shelf.  

I wasn’t even finished sorting the picture books before I began considering doing the same to our chapter books.  Yes, it would require interlacing fiction and nonfiction.  It would even entail splitting apart series.  As ridiculous as all of that was, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on those shelves as well.  

Spurred on by the success of the picture books, I was emboldened enough to commit another heresy.  I removed the dust jackets.

There.  I said it.  My books are ordered by color, and I didn't even have the decency to leave their dust jackets on.  But, I knew that I needed quiet, and I was going to get it, in the form of solid spines.


It seems to be working for now.  The conversation has settled to a soft murmur.  The books are a welcome presence in our home again.  They’ve become beckoning again.  Our curiosity is reignited. 

Which is good.  Because I’ve warned them that if they get so noisy again, I’ll have no choice left but to turn their spines to the wall, like rows and rows of naughty chidlren.  And, I do think my family would revolt at the prospect of finding their books in that scenario, no matter the philosophical arguments I offer in response.


Yes, it still feels a little ridiculous.   Like this morning, when my son asked me what color Freakonomics is without it’s cover.  He wanted to find it to lend it to a friend.  (It’s white, by the way—in case you needed to know).

It is a bit of a ridiculous system.  And yet, maybe ridiculous is exactly what I need.  I thought I needed to quiet them down, and mix them up.  But, maybe what I needed was to inject a little ridiculous in our home.  I think I needed to cause a bit of an uproar.