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The Simple Pleasure of an Empty Bookshelf

This satisfying project can redefine your relationship with your books.

Organizing books
Credit: Getty Images

“A house without books is like a room without windows,” wrote Horace Mann, the 18th century education reformer, abolitionist and writer. I agree wholeheartedly with Mann, and I take pride in the realization that there are books in virtually every room in my home.

Recently, my husband and I undertook a painting project in a room we use as an office—and which has a whole beautiful wall-full of built-in bookshelves. As we started to pull books down off the shelves, at first I felt a pang of anxiety, like I was pulling plants out of the garden. 

But then I recognized the lovely opportunity the project offered—the opportunity to rethink our book collection. I didn’t think I needed to do this, as I faithfully comb my shelves for titles to share with my neighbors at our annual “Book Swap.”

Yet, the physical act of removing every book from its spot on the shelf revealed a few unexpected insights. For one thing, there were many more books than I anticipated that no longer inspired, comforted or intrigued me. At the same time, there were a number of inviting surprises on the shelf—books I had forgotten were waiting for me to crack them open. 

So the painting job gained a parallel project of bookshelf organization. The fact that my hands touched each and every volume on my shelf made it easy to think differently about where they would live when the paint had dried. 

I seized the opportunity and started by grouping the books by genre. You might find this satisfying—or you could organize your books by size, alphabetical order or even by jacket color if that pleases you. 

Next, I thought about the layout of the books on the shelves. As appealing as a line of books along a shelf looks to me, I also have admired in magazines and design websites shelves that combine books in vertical and horizontal orientations. This enabled me to stack some tall coffee table books next to a line of shorter-statured gardening books (told you I went by genre). 

Finally, it dawned on me that I had room on my wall of bookshelves for more than just books. Without betraying my love of a significant book collection, I played with arranging a vase here, a figurine there, a piece of my son’s school art there, each in its place as a symbol of aspects of my life I love as much (gasp!) as I treasure my books. Against some books, I even tilted a framed photograph of a field of daisies my cousin took years ago on a trip to South America. (Any guesses which section I placed that photo in?)

A clean bookshelf might sound like a chore, but the next rainy afternoon you spend inside in search of a project, try pulling your volumes off the shelf, having a little visit with each one and thinking in a fresh way how and where they might live their best lives.

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