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Idiosyncratic Book Shelving 101

Rebecca Joines Schinsky

Chief of Staff

Rebecca Joines Schinsky is the executive director of product and ecommerce at Riot New Media Group. She co-hosts All the Books! and the Book Riot Podcast. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccaschinsky.

When my husband and I bought our house six years ago, we merged our bookshelves for the very first time. Neither of us had a shelving system we were overly attached to (I just put things where I could fit them, and he added books in the order he read them), so we decided to make one up. Why alphabetize or genre-sort when we could do something wholly original, something that only made sense to the two of us because who cares if anyone else understands our bookshelves?

After spending the first quarter of this year renovating our living room, complete with new built-in shelves and a reading nook, we got to pull our books out of the boxes they’d been tucked away in for three months and have another go at The Shelving System That Only We Understand. Here’s what happened.

First, we took out all the books and spread them on the floor.

You try sorting hundreds of books and not getting frizzy hair.

You try sorting hundreds of books and not getting frizzy hair.


As we went through our collections, we made stacks of books that just felt like they went together because of connections in voice, theme, author, or what they reminded us of. The husband hadn’t weeded his collection EVER, and I hadn’t weeded in the six years since we moved into the house, so we also got rid of A LOT of books. We’re talking duplicates (and triplicates….and sixtuplicates, which is a word now, because we had six, count ’em, copies of Catch-22), galleys of books I later bought in hardcover, things we enjoyed but are never going to read again, and the ones we’d had sitting around but have absolutely zero desire to keep forever.

There are books in every room of our house, and we’re running out of wall space for shelves, so it was time to say goodbye. Here’s a look at the giveaway pile in progress. At the finish line, we had 19 bags of books to donate.

giveaway pile

As we sorted through the boxes, each of us made mini-piles of books we wanted to group together. Then we compared our mini-piles, combined the ones that were similar-ish, and started shelving. My husband calls this process “heat mapping,” as in, the closer one title is to another, the more they have in common, the hotter their connection. You know, according to our super-specific system.

First, we tackled the new built-in shelf.

1) Old books, collectibles, and newish books that look collectible with their jackets off

2) Vonnegut, humor, thrillers, manly books we didn’t have other homes for

3) Quirky/weird/dark fiction with awesome covers…plus Ayn Rand and some John Krakauer because who knows, we were drinking

4) Badass lady writers

5) Sex and food because LOGIC.


Here’s a closer look at the two bottom shelves, which people seem most interested in so far. Yes, that’s Jenna Jameson sitting atop the Hite Report and the famous Kinsey study.

built-in bookshelves bottom

Then we moved over to the reading nook, where we resolved to keep weeding until we could fit everything onto the three shelves and have open space for adding books in the future. Culling completed, we finalized our heat mapped piles and starting placing them wherever there was room.

1) The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, plus a few humor titles that needed homes, plus engagement picture from the Kansas City Public Library.

2) The complete Toni Morrison (stacked), African and African-American fiction, Dumas, and Dickens

3) Fiction with fantasy, magic realism, mindfuckery. Also a misshelved David Grann essay collection.

4) Anne Rice and the Master & Commander series.

5) Harry Potter, The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Chronicles of Narnia, assorted C.S. Lewis theology

6) War novels, war history, mob stories

7) Contemporary fiction and YA

8) Essays and creative nonfiction

9) Memoirs, plus novels by Barbara Kingsolver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood (who would all be on the Badass Lady Writer shelf if I had more room).

10) Classics

11) All-time favorites and complicated relationships: Mary Doria Russell, Adam Ross, Jennifer Egan, Donna Tartt, Michel Faber, Gillian Flynn, among others.

12) Middle-Aged White Guy Problems

13) Assorted dude books

14) Short story collections, books about books

15) More classics

living room shelves

And here’s a closer look at the favorites shelf and the Middle-Aged White Guy Problems collection.

favorites shelf

This concludes your daily dose of bookshelf voyeurism. Now tell me, readers, how do YOU shelve your books? Any crazy systems you want to share?


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