The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

Disorganised Chaos

My father is an Artist. My mother was a former English and Music teacher. When I was a child, the bookcase was a battleground.

My father would arrange the books aesthetically with all the big books together; medium sized together; small ones together; and, if possible, grouped in complimentary colour shades along the spines so the overall effect was very pleasing on the eye.

My mother would complain that if she wanted to find a book by Delia Smith then she wanted to be able to look under “S” and find the damn thing without having to hunt through different shelves trying to remember what size it was. Her reordering of the bookshelf often offended my father’s aesthetic sensibilities.

My own bookshelf is arranged more or less by category: philosophy books, religious texts, graphic novels, maps and travel books, art, design and photography books, business manuals, and so on, all occupy their own areas on the shelves.

Last night I glanced across at the recently stocked bookshelf near Maggie’s side of the bed to see how she’d arranged her own tomes. However to my surprise, and consternation, so far as I could tell her books were not ordered by size, genre, author, publisher, chronology, colour, font, or even alphabetically by title, surname or forename. In fact they weren’t all upright either; some were piled on their sides, but even that appeared to be random.

After several minutes of attempting to squeeze my mind into ever more bizarre classification permutations, I admitted defeat and asked Maggie her method for putting the books on the shelf. She looked at me with a certain amount of curiosity, then pity, then slowly and clearly explained that she’d lifted them out of the boxes and placed them wherever there was space.

It turns out her random, chaotic way of placing books is quite deliberate; it means that when she glances along the shelves Maggie can never be sure what she’s going to find. Consequently she gets all sorts of surprises and treats when she looks for a book to read.

It reminds me of the strategic board games I used to play with my older brother when we were teenagers. I would use logic, reason, and calculated and considered tactics, while he would charge around the board chaotically leaping from one place to another with little reason beyond “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. Needless to say, nine times out of ten I would beat him soundly.

But I always suspected he had more fun.


C in DC said...

I'm a librarian/archivist. It amuses my librarian friends that I organize my fiction by author and then by publication date (because if I'm going to re-read them, I want to do it in the order they were written).

My husband's method parallels Maggie's.

Mary Witzl said...

Before we had kids, I used to arrange my herbs and spices alphabetically. I kid you not. Now -- oh hell. You would have to see it to believe it, and NO ONE is going to see this; I just won't allow it.

Suffice it to say that in this household, the other members reject what they see as my rigid attempts to organize. They tend to favor Maggie's approach. In fact, they take it one step further: most of the time they don't even bother to put the books back on the shelf.

Restaurant Gal said...

Organized chaos--thanks for giving my filing systems a label! I am definitely one who tackles it all without much order, but definitely by what feels just right. --RG

Andraste said...

I'm with you, Kim. In general, my books are arranged by topic, with a special area known as the 'on deck circle' for the ones I haven't read yet. It's a baseball term, used for the area where the next batter in the line-up warms up for his at-bat. (Shut up, I think it's clever.)

Lately, though, because I'm running out of bookshelf space, the categories are getting a bit mixed because I can't be arsed to arrange them. Last week I couldn't put my hands on a particular book and it made me INSANE.

Jen said...

I'm with Maggie. Our bookshelves are a mess. But when I go to look for something, I always come across an old favorite, or one I've meant to read, as a little surprise. I like it that way.

Muncher said...

I play Euchre in much the same way your brother would play board games however in Euchre it seems to end with much better result. At an old job every lunch time we would play. My friend and I always played together and ususally against the same guys. If you play Euchre you know there is a certain unspoken "way" to play. You lead with the big stuff to suck all the trump out of your opponents hands. This works great if you have a good hand but if your hand is less than stellar you probably shouldn't have taken the bid. When ever we could we would take the bid regardless of the hands being dealt us. At that point we would break with the "way" and play cards more or less at random causing the others to have to play our game. Typically, this made it hard for them to play because their brains were so resolved that there was only one real way to play the game and we would win 90% of the time. I've found this works with a lot of other things too. Poker, not so much.

Brave Astronaut said...

like C in DC (who works at the same place I do), we seek to place order in our lives by organizing other people's stuff. (Archivists are really just about reading your old mail, but you didn't hear it from me.)

Before I moved in with my now-wife, I would visit her for long weekends (we lived in different locales). I would sit in the living room and twitch when I would look over at her "serendipitously arranged" bookshelves. She knew I wanted to rearrange them according to subject for the non-fiction and alphabetically by author for the fiction. She would admonish me, telling me that I couldn't do anything until I lived there.

So when I moved in, I hauled in my stuff (including a fair amount of my own books) and the first thing I did was perform a complete library reorganization so I could sleep at night.

Now we are getting ready to move and I have already begun thinking about what bookshelves will hold what part of the collection in what room. Decisions, decisions.

Kim Ayres said...

C in DC - I have a friend who organises his CD collection by release date.

Mary - wow, I would never have thought of organising the herbs. I'm impressed.

Restaurant Gal - I'm in a constant flux between gut reaction and logic.

Andraste - unread is in a pile on the floor of my study. Erm, make that 2, no, 3 piles.

Jen - there's a line in a Douglas Adams book about one of his characters, Dirk Gently, who, when he goes out for a drive, randomly follows different cars. I can't remember the exact quote, but the gist of it is that he rarely ends up where he was intending to go, but always where he was meant to be.

Muncher - that reminds me a bit of Carole's recent post And I didn't even use my brain about her approach to playing chess.

Brave Astronaut - Have you seen High Fidelity? There are a couple of references in there to different ways to organise a record collection. I can imagine you appreciating it :)

Muncher said...

I guess that makes me a chip off the old...what's the female version of block?*

*This comment written without using my brain.

Dr Joseph McCrumble said...

I share and endorse Maggie's approach entirely. At least with my fiction. For reasons I can't completely explain, I order my textbooks by the reputation / popularity of the editor - less well known to the left. That way, I can base my research on the authority of my peers.

Julie said...

There are five distinct places for books in our home. My husband has his bookshelves organized just like Maggie's. Our common bookcase is organized by subject. Then there are three piles -- one "to be read" on the floor by the bed, another to send to my book buddy in Pennsylvania, and a third to send to my dad.

Sayre said...

If a book is part of a series (aka Harry Potter), I like to shelve them together and in order. Otherwise, it's rather higglety-pigglety. And of course, right now, they're all in boxes and not shelved at all. I'm getting with my friend who knows where to get shelves next week!

Carole said...

I love books, but don't accumulate enough to have bookshelves. My dream is to someday have rows and rows of bookshelves to fill. But in the meantime I stash my keepers in boxes, and then forget that I have them.

The Hangar Queen said...

I'm entirely with Maggie on this one.Thinking about it I've just realised I have stashes of books in three different states as well as my desk at work.
My 'organization' amounts to having them all in the same time zone.
Mind you I do have a small bookcase just for tech and flying manuals that I'm mercilessly Prussian with.

Z said...

I'm with Maggie too. But I usually know where to find a particular book, as I remember from when I've been browsing or when I put it there. There is some degree of categorisation with the non-fiction, as it's convenient to have reference books in the study and cookery books in the kitchen, but it's random otherwise.

I used to work in a library, but that's different. Lots of people use a library so you have to have a system, but your bookshelves are personal.

Jeff said...


Books in our house are almost always on the shelf in just any order. Makes life a mystery that way...


Kim Ayres said...

Dr McCrumble - ordering by reputation/popularity of the editor is one I would never have thought of. If I was handing out prizes, I think that would deserve one

Julie - I like that idea of organising by who you think should read it next. That deserves a prize too.

Sayre - ah yes, books get packed by size

Carole - I love books and find it very hard to get rid of them, even if I know it's highly unlikely I'll ever read it again.

Hangar Queen - yet another one who organisies like Maggie! Clearly my blog is visited by primarily right-brain dominant readers.

Z - I was able to cope with that system when my memory was better. These days that would be a disaster.

Jeff - and what kind of example are you setting Nash? Actually Meg is always reorganising her bookcase. She loves taking them all out, sorting through them and putting them back. Unfortunately this means if there's a particular bedtime story she would like it's a nightmare trying to find it.

gimme a minute said...

I have started ordering my books by dedication.

As I am allowed a maximum of ten books out of storage at any one time, this is not as arduous as it might first appear.

Still, I'm not sure where to put: 'For Sable Basilisk Pursuivant and Hilary Bray who came to the aid of the party'.

SafeTinspector said...

For my daughter's bookshelf we use your dad's method. This is on account of it being easier to browse the books when they are grouped by size and construction. (little, floppy square books here, little rectangular hard covers here, tall board books here....)

For my shelves I use Maggie's method. It is not as consciously as her, I'm probably just too lazy to organize them, but I do sometimes rediscover books this way.

Eryl Shields said...

Because I recently got a whole new set of book-cases I organised all my books into categories: fiction A-Z by author; philosophy the same; anthologies, random; other reference, random. I also have a shelf above my desk for current study reference. The problem is I subsumed 'un-read' into the various categories so now I can't put my hands on them with ease. And not remembering what I've got I have tended to buy doubles of rather too many.

We also have a pile of totally random books in the loo which Stevie sits and reads for hours in there. If I can't find a book on my shelves I know I will usually find it in there.

Kim Ayres said...

Gimme a minute - That's certainly an impressive way to order books :) Welcome to my ramblings

SafeT - You mean you haven't taught Sam the benefits of the Dewey Decimal system yet?

Eryl - we daren't leave books in the loo as the shower screen only comes halfway across the bath, which means nothing can be guaranteed to keep dry when the kids have a shower.

Brave Astronaut said...

I certainly appreciate the proper way to compile a dedication CD, I am reminded by the challenge set forth in the scene in the Breakfast Club, where Judd Nelson spends the entire scene rearranging cards in the card catalog. I was working at a library at the time, and it just made me cringe, but laugh as well.

Kate said...

LOL You and Maggie sound like Mr Blogs and I. He organises his books (and cds/dvds) very methodically, I just put mine where they will fit. Admittedly, he does find it easier to locate specific titles, but I do have the fun of discovering random books I have often forgotten about. However, sometimes, if I'm feeling devilish, I do find it amusing to switch his books around.

TheAmpuT said...

Okay. I have to tell you about my ex-hubby. Together we had over 1800 cd's, arranged alphabetically, by him...except my bellydance cd's, which HE left out in a separate pile (even though he liked to listen to them). Odd.
Anyhow, as anal as he was about ORGANIZING them, when he made a mixed cd for the car, he had this elaborate system of using dice to determine which cd, which track, etc etc. I never asked what his plan was. But it was pretty damn cool.

You could find anything when you needed it, but you never got stuck to only listening to the first 3-5 tracks of a cd.

(PS...your alarm click dream made me laugh so hard I choked)

Thrup'ny bits said...

I'm like Maggie as far as arranging books goes ~blush~ Perhaps it's a visual thing; when I want to find a book I have an image of what it looks like and if I'm lucky I remember where I last put it down.

I will vaguely arrange books by subject . . .


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