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The Deep Dive

If You Don’t Shelve Your Books By Color, You Don’t Deserve Books

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

The book as object has evolved from carved stone tablets to papyrus scrolls to leatherbound tomes and clothbound volumes to its final, apex form: the ebook. eBooks are by almost any standard superior to a physical book. You can carry your entire library with you. You can adjust the font style and size to your preference. You can search within the book. They’re waterproof, if you get the right ereader. We now even have ereaders that allow you to highlight and write in the margins of pages — and your notes can easily be exported in one convenient document. You can even sync ebooks with audiobooks, allowing you to read along.

With the widespread availability of ebooks, there’s only one advantage to a physical book, and that’s aesthetics. If physical books are essentially decor, then they should be treated as such. That’s why the best way — nay, the only correct way — to display your books is by color.

books edges out in rainbow order
Photo by Fedor Kozyr on Canva Pro

A well-organized library is a beautiful sight. Books are the best way to decorate a space, especially when they’re carefully curated. Publishing has acknowledged the physical book’s value being mostly aesthetic by investing in collectable editions, especially books with sprayed edges. These editions are meant to be displayed, with many bookish influencers shelving them spine in to better show off those edges.

While any collection of books can create a cozy, welcoming atmosphere in a home, there are better and worse ways to display your collection. Alphabetical by author is a common mistake. This makes sense for a reference library, but at that point, an ebook collection is much more efficient. This collection is for aesthetics, and alphabetical order creates a chaotic mix of sizes, colors, and bindings.

A slight improvement is arranging books by size. This creates a little more visual order, but it’s also simplistic. Consider adding more visual interest by increasing and then decreasing book height, creating a wave effect.

The obvious choice, though, is to arrange your books in rainbow order. A rainbow-ordered bookcase immediately becomes the focal point of any room. It’s pleasingly organized, but with enough variety to invite a closer look.

Photo by Pixelshot on Canva Pro

Other acceptable choices can include creating aesthetically pleasing collections, like keeping all the leatherbound volumes together or stacking books in matching piles around the room. Another method is separating books by genre or topic and then ordering them by color within each category — this isn’t as stunning as a full wall of rainbow-ordered books, but it is an improvement over alphabetical order, at least.

If physical books’ value is primarily as aesthetic objects, then why have books at all if you’re not going to display them to their full potential? It’s a waste of such beautiful objects to toss them on a shelf in mere alphabetical order, reducing them to only their functionality — a function better served by ebooks. If you don’t arrange your books by color, you don’t deserve books.

Every time Book Riot posts anything on Facebook mentioning shelving by color, we receive a deluge of vitriolic comments about the practice. Not only would these commenters never arrange their books this way (understandable), they’re enraged that anyone, anywhere would do this to their books (not so understandable). The reasoning is usually that it’s impossible to find books this way, but this can’t be why rainbow shelves attract so much anger. Commenters will happily describe other, even more inefficient shelving systems that seem to be acceptable: shelving by height, by how much you like a book, by the place the book is set, by when it was bought, completely randomly where there’s space, etc.

When I saw a Facebook comment that said, and I quote, “People who organize books by color do not deserve books,” I knew I wanted to write about it. Personally, I don’t shelve my books by color, but I have my own esoteric system that wouldn’t work for most people. I think how we shelve our books is an interesting insight into how we think about books, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

That’s how I ended up wanting to write a satirical take imagining if people who shelve their books in rainbow order were just as intense about it as the alphabetical order people in Facebook comments are. So, just to be clear: shelve your books however you’d like, and I have no real stakes in the ebook vs physical books debate.

But I’d like to know your opinion in the comments: why do you think shelving by color receives so much more hate online than any other shelving system?

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