Our Reading Lives

Ways I’ve Organized My Rainbow Bookshelves

Ashley Holstrom

Staff Writer

Ashley Holstrom helps make books at Sourcebooks. She lives near Chicago with her cat named after Hemingway and her bookshelves organized by color. Newsletter: Crooked Reads. Twitter: @alholstrom.

I love books and I love rainbows, so, duh, why not combine two of my favorite things and make my bookshelves into a work of colorful art? 

Rainbow Bookshelves | Ashley Holstrom
The Before: All (okay, most) of my books sorted by spine color.

I’ve organized my bookshelves like this for the last decade or so. I love having my library be a thing of visual beauty. But lately, it’s started getting overwhelming to not easily know which of my many books were unread. Sitting on the couch across from my rainbow bookshelves, I’d often try counting how many I’d read, just to get a ballpark idea, but I am a visual person. I have my Goodreads stats, sure, but seeing 200 owned and unread books as a stat versus a physical thing just didn’t work for my brain.

Method: Inside-Out Spines

Enter: the idea of turning my read books inside out. Rioter Olivia Páez did a similar thing by turning her unread books inside out, but I wanted to make my unread books the visible ones. I left everything in the order it was in on the shelves, but simply turned the read books spine in. It’s a fine method, but it’s not for me. It worked for a week or so. I didn’t like it. It really harshed the rainbow bookshelves vibe.

Rainbow Bookshelves with Spines Turned Inside Out | Ashley Holstrom
The During: Books are still sorted by spine color, but the books I’ve read are turned spine in. There’s a lot of beige happening here.

This inside-out experiment wasn’t a good representation of what I was hoping for: A clearer visual of just how many unread books I own. So I took it one step further, (sort of) following in the footsteps of Rioter Laura Sackton, who pretends her house is a library and separates her unread books to a completely different bookcase. Side note, after reading her post two years ago, I have had a dream of doing exactly this for my unread books. So I did the next best thing.

Method: Separate Read and Unread Books

Because I only have one main bookcase, I had to make do with what I have. I pulled out every single book, creating a sea of books on my library floor and confusing the heck out of my cat. My read books go on the top shelf as far as they reach, and the rainbow starts again with unread books, and ends with one cube of advance reader’s editions. I should also note that the entire bottom shelf is double-stacked, because OF COURSE I have too many books to be able to display them ALL.

Rainbow Bookshelves with Read and Unread Books Separated | Ashley Holstrom
The After: A DOUBLE RAINBOW! One for read books (top shelf), the rest for unread books.

It is beautiful, but holy moly, is it overwhelming. I can clearly see just how many books I own that I should start reading (it’s, um, a lot) and it clears some of the visual clutter that comes with trying to pick my next read.

In the week I’ve had my bookshelves organized like this, I’ve spent more time picking up and getting rid of some of the books that aren’t for me anymore. It’s like I’m having a race with myself to see how soon I can move all my books either to the top shelf or out of my home entirely.

This system for organizing my bookshelves is temporary for me. I have big dreams of owning a house with a wall of bookshelves, so I want to spend some time reading through everything I own so I don’t have to go through another move with more unread books than read ones.

If you need more ideas for your unread shelves, we also have 21 ways to organize your unread books. Go forth and have a fun day organizing out there, friends!