Want to spark conversation at a dinner party? Don’t ask about politics: Ask how your peers arrange their bookshelves — alphabetically or by color. Passionate discussions about tomes trump Trump every time.
As you probably assumed, I’m waving the flag high for Team Color. There’s nothing that brings a pleased-as-punch grin to my face faster than a bookshelf that visually flows through the color spectrum. On crisp white shelves, color-blocked books sing.
Being a visual thinker — and also mildly dyslexic — a color-coded library is more functional for me. The same ability that allows me to design and visualize a completed room before we’ve even swung a hammer is also my book-finding superpower. I’m much quicker at locating a title when I can visualize the spine, not when I know the title or author. The jumble of color, size and text in a standard bookshelf instantly turns my brain off. Picturing the book itself is how I best recall its location in our ever-growing library.
My husband is right in the middle of his Ph.D. in church music at Baylor. As a result of his noble academic pursuits, we have about a zillion books. Or at least it feels like that many. We have six bookshelves that span nearly wall-to-wall in our shared home office. In addition to my husband’s hefty scholarly library, as a designer, I have my own share of hardcover design reference books and bulky fabric swatch books from my favorite vendors. And the entire Harry Potter series in hardcover, naturally. So yeah, books are a thing in our house. And of course, they’ve gotta look good.
I’m Team Color. He’s Team Alphabetical.
I can’t tell you how many times my poor husband would be looking for a particular title and couldn’t locate it.
“‘The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs,’” he’d shout.
“White!” I’d reply triumphantly.
“How about ‘A Survey of Christian Hymnody’?”
A brief pause while I scanned my mental directory. “On the purple shelf.”
I’m grateful to be married to a man who acquiesces to my rainbow-hued desires, despite requiring a certain level of functionality with his reference material. His books easily account for 85 percent of our library. If he had his way, our books would be arranged first by genre, then alphabetically by author and title.
I think I would die. And never be able to find anything.
He’s a darn good sport about all of this. For a happy compromise, our books are grouped by color but are alphabetical by title within each color. I’m sure this sounds crazy-obsessive to some, but we love it and it works.
Function meets aesthetics. Yin meets Yang. Team Alphabetical meets Team Color.
Organizing books by color can be gorgeous if done right but can easily look kitschy or staged if things are too perfect. It’s all about finding that sweet spot between styled and sloppy. After I’ve loosely lined things up in rainbow order (like a good child of the ‘80s who grew up with a love for Rainbow Brite), I like to mix up the rigid rows with vertical and horizontal groupings. Breaking up a vertical row of books with an artful horizontal stack creates interest and movement and also provides a bit of visual breathing room. And of course, the flat stacks become the perfect pedestal to display a vase, a framed photo or a collectible. I collect vintage cameras, and they’ve been a fun conversation piece.
I’ve seen successful shelf styling that mixes a few white spines in each colored section for a looser, lived-with look. I love this concept, but as I’d have absolutely no idea where to find anything, and my head would probably explode. Maybe you can give it a try and let me know how it goes.
I may have painted myself as a bit of a bookshelf extremist by this point. Clearly, I have a strong viewpoint on the subject. So where do I break this perfectly color-coded rule? With kids books. They’re so vibrant and energetic as is that it’s more enjoyable to let them be. And for our family, their accessibility is more important than organization. My 2-year-old grabs his book of choice off his little aqua-colored bookshelf and puts it back on whatever shelf he pleases. Maybe one day he’ll learn the art of the “shelfie” and start artfully arranging his picture books like Mom does, but for now, I’m just psyched that he loves to read.
Whether you’re on Team Color or Team Alphabetical, I hope your shelves are more than a place to stash your reading material. Bookshelves are an opportunity to tell a visual story and create a clear focal point in a room. I’d love to see your “shelfie” style — share a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #WacoanShelfie.