Our Reading Lives

Blending Bookshelves: My Quest to Embrace Chaos

Tracy Shapley Towley

Staff Writer

Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all-around ne’er do well, very-adult graduate of the University of Iowa, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, reading fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and typing letters to her friends on an old red typewriter that doesn't have a working period so all sentences must end in questions marks or exclamation points? She has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has a lot of thoughts on them. Her old Iowa farmhouse is shared by her husband Sean, a pair of cats, a pair of dogs, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.

When my partner and I moved in together we had the typical things to navigate: who got to park in the driveway and how we’d combine and organize our books. We both brought lots of books to the relationship and we had vastly different organizational methods. I had a bookcase for the Pulitzers organized by the year they won, a bookcase for Cuban non-/fiction organized first by subject or time period and then by author, a couple of fiction bookcases shelved alphabetically, and a bookcase of general non-fiction with an ever-changing organizational structure.

He had his books shoved in cardboard boxes of varying sizes.

Obviously, there was some compromising to be done.

In most every move I’ve ever been through in my life, unpacking my books is one of the first things I do. It’s so satisfying! It makes me feel like I’m home! It’s fun! But this was different. Moving house is hard enough but when you’re combining two single people into one family, well, I was overwhelmed. By the time we were settled in enough that I felt up for tackling the books, we’d acquired two cats, Dry Bones and Gristle, and they’d proven their worthiness of our bookish household by staking their claim to the bottom shelves of our bookcases, which meant that those shelves could only be used for books we didn’t mind being covered in hair / chewed on / pulled off the shelves in ever-increasingly dramatic ways. What to do. Get rid of the cats? Oh, internet, that’s a terrible plan! Shame on you.

No, the bookish cats were staying so I made an executive decision and did the only thing I could think of: nothing. For the first time in my life, there was no rhyme or reason to my shelves. Vonnegut is just hanging out with Carl Hiaasen, Margaret Atwood is rubbing elbows with Jhumpa Lahiri, and my copy of The Communist Manifesto is nestled right up to my partner’s The Sauce Bible. It’s chaos over here! I took a lot of deep breaths and decided it would be fine. No, really; IT’S FINE.

Except, recently, I realized that I’ve started backsliding. We have a sort-of library area (I imagine normal people would use it as a dining nook) that’s home to three of our bookcases and the rest are in my office. One of these office bookcases has slowly but surely begun to organize itself. All of its own accord, I swear. The top two shelves are home to my to-be-read books (I can’t just let them muck around with the already-read books, come on!) and then there’s a shelves for the books publishers send me which need to be shelved separately because obviously they do and also because I have to review them on my blog and if I didn’t have them on their own shelf I would have no idea what was going on and how could I ever possibly tag those reviews correctly! My blood pressure is rising just thinking about all this.

So here I find myself, pretending to embrace chaos when I walk through the front door, past our little sort-of library, but secretly shelving and re-shelving my office bookcases, each day bringing more and more order to them. Now if only I could bottle this organizational obsession and use it to clear out the kitchen pantry. Maybe tomorrow, but first let me just get these first editions sorted alphabetically . . . or should it be by year of publication? There goes my blood pressure again.