Remember in the early 2000s when people were afraid print books would become irrelevant? Fast-forward to 2020, when the popularity of Instagram, Zoom meetings, and FaceTime collided with the fact that we were all stuck at home, and suddenly books became the new “must have item” in your office or living room background.
As much as they were in the Gilded Age, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves brimming with a beautifully curated collection remain a status symbol. A well-stocked library presents an air of knowledge, power, and privilege. As Henry Petroski states in The Book on the Book Shelf: “The bookshelf, like the book, has become an integral part of civilization as we know it, its presence in a home practically defining what it means to be civilized, educated, and refined.” But your shelves should represent you even if you’re not worried about keeping up with the Jones. They show your interests, where you have been, and what you have done. And although analyzing bookshelves over zoom and social media is the ultimate ‘judging a book by its cover,’ it doesn’t have to be negative – rather a good and meaningful way of self-expression.
So if it’s time to reexamine your shelves, here are some simple guidelines. Go through the titles and books you love, and keep the ones that are sentimental, functional, or beautiful. If a book doesn’t fit into any of these categories, take it from the shelf and donate it to your local library book sale or sell it.
You can build a gorgeous collection according to your tastes – it does not necessarily have to be made from rare or valuable books. Book collectors spend time creating a selection that holds meaning as well as aesthetic appeal.
As for the arrangement of your book collection, there are multiple options and guidelines to follow.
Vintage Book Collection: Titles
Whether you’re a politician, celebrity, teacher, or a customer service representative, the titles on your bookshelf matter. It is essential to make sure you have read, or at least know, the content of the books you are displaying. The New York Times ran an article in 2020 What Do Famous People’s Bookshelves Reveal? and there have since been more than a few instances certain people were called out on having specific controversial books on their shelves. There are even Twitter accounts dedicated to bookcase voyeurism like @bCredibility – Bookcase Credibility, whose tagline is: “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”
Certain bookshops and services, including Brattle Bookshop in Boston, help people decorate their homes with books according to their tastes and needs.
Vintage Book Collection: Colors
Arranging bookshelves by color is a fun exercise for those over-achievers that find fulfillment in organization. The rainbow shelves can be helpful if you remember the color of the book you are looking for. Color coordination is also excellent for a small stand in a guest room or living space that you want to accent with just a color or two – say bright red books or blue and green covers.
People going for a neutral tone may remove and discard dust jackets. I love this minimalist look, but it also jars me a bit. Much of the value of a book comes from the dust jacket, so if the title is something you like and don’t ever plan on selling (and it’s not a signed first edition!), do what you want. DO NOT, however, arrange your books with the spines inward. This minimalist trend is a big No-No for anyone who reads books. HOW DO YOU FIND A BOOK? It’s not okay. No matter how ‘cool’ you think it looks, don’t do it.
Vintage Book Collection: Arrangement
Bookshelves look great with a varied arrangement of books, but if you are storing expensive or dear items like a book collection, care needs to be taken! You can find much more information on this on our book collecting guide, but generally, don’t cram books, and take care if you place them in stacks that aren’t top heavy because that can damage spines.
Vintage Book Collection: Extras
Add personality to your shelves with plants, art, or random figurines. Less is more unless your look is a ‘chaotic hoarder.’ Art and decorative pieces add depth and interest, keeping an eye moving around the shelf as it would a picture.
Designers say to arrange items in odd numbers – one object alone, or three or five grouped. More oversized items belong on the bottom shelves. The rule of thirds stands here just as it would in a photograph – space everything according to a nine-cube grid: top, middle, bottom, left, center, and right.
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.