THE WASHINGTON POST – My bookshelves are a mess. It’s not just that I have too many books and too little space. I’m also simply disorganised. It wasn’t always so. Shelves I put together years ago, pre-children, remain generally intact: a full bookcase of poetry, alphabetised by author, and several jam-packed bookcases of fiction, also by authors’ last names. These shelves now serve primarily as decoration or reference or as a lending library for guests. But there’s more, much more: the tumbling pile on my desk – propping up the computer I am typing on – and the volumes stuffed frantically in the bookcase in my bedroom and stacked in towers on and around my nightstand. These are the books that are part of my daily life – for work, for pleasure, sometimes both. There is no rhyme or reason to how I arrange them, but as I read in one of the books I consulted (then discarded) to help deal with my little problem: “If it’s where you meant it to be, then it’s organised.” I am adopting that as my book-organising principle. Don’t tell my kids.
I asked nine writers to share a photo of a favourite bookshelf (or what social media might refer to as a “shelfie”), explain the organising principle (if there is one) and tell me a bit about what’s on that shelf. Here’s what they said.
Elin Hilderbrand: Author of 28 novels, including The Island, Summer of ‘69 and most recently The Hotel Nantucket.
“This shelf is unique – my other shelves are organised by the time in my life when I read the books. So, for example, there’s a shelf of novels I read in 1992-1993, when I was living in New York City commuting from Manhattan to my teaching job at IS 227 in Queens. There’s another shelf I read when I was nursing my first child, Maxx. There’s a shelf I read when I was going through my divorce, when I was being treated for cancer, etc. But if a book was lucky, it got relocated to this shelf! This is my ‘favourite book’ shelf and my number one favourite book of all time is Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. I received a first edition for my 50th birthday from my kids – which really means we can credit my ex-husband, who somehow tracked one down. (He was looking for a signed first edition, but that apparently added a digit.) No matter – this is the best gift I’ve ever received.”
Diana Gabaldon: Author of the Outlander series. The latest installment is Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone.
This is part of my working reference collection, which includes 80-odd (some odder than others) herbal guides; a dozen slang dictionaries; a ‘Claire’ shelf, which has medical references (like the Merck Manual that represents the temporal limit of her medical knowledge in the Outlander series) and biographies written by and about doctors; historical medical stuff; Scottish stuff (history, language, customs, geography, novels and poetry by Scots, etc.); miscellaneous Big Books, ranging from a two-volume collection of the Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck stories by Carl Barks to books about historical costume, maps and things like the history of hurricanes. Also, I have biographies of people I think I’ll need to know about, medical history, a small collection of pornography and a shelf of family writings (my grandfather wrote occasional fantasy short stories), my mother’s one published book (professional – as in the teaching profession) and my great-grandmother’s Bible. There are roughly 2,000 books up here in my office. There are another 1,500 downstairs. Then there’s a ‘real’ library in my old family home. Lovely, peaceful room. Whenever I’m there, I always make time to just sit down up there and read quietly for an hour or so.”
Garrett Graff: Author of, among other books, The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert S. Mueller III’s FBI and Watergate: A New History.
“It often feels like ‘book management’ is my primary job – procuring them, reading them, shuffling them around shelves. When my wife and I moved from D.C. seven years ago, we had about 5,000 pounds of books, and I continue to amass them at a rate of about 200 a year. Despite that, I can tell you where effectively every book is in my library. I group them generally first by subject and then loosely try to organise them by colour and/or topic so that the shelves don’t look too chaotic. I have my Cold War shelves; my 9/11 shelves; my presidency shelves; and, of course, a handful of shelves of fiction. I sprinkle in a lot of a historical artifacts and pictures, too, that I’ve accumulated. My shelf on Richard M Nixon’s tapes actually has as a bookend a boxed hazmat suit that once was in George W Bush’s presidential limo.”
Vanessa Riley: Writes historical fiction, historical mystery and historical romance novels. Her most recent books include Island Queen and Sister Mother Warrior.
“My shelfie principle is to have things within reach that make me smile or make me think. This shelf is close to my working desk and is often visible in my Zoom calls. At the top are my Barbies: Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, The African Goddess (designed by Bob Mackie), Ida B Wells and Katherine Johnson. Then come books. My favourite authors and titles, things that move me, things I learned from, things that changed me. My reading habits are diverse. I need Beverly Jenkins’s Something Like Love close to Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light.
There’s nothing like having the exploits of Henry VIII’s court next to the political struggles of Olivia Sterling. The latest from Jayne Allen, Kristan Higgins and Nancy Johnson keeps me tethered to the present, while Kate Quinn, Maya Angelou, Sadeqa Johnson and Denny S Bryce make the past come alive in new, rich ways. And, of course, my career accomplishments – my titles and awards – round out my shelves. Probably on the floor near this bookcase is my latest manuscript, again mirroring my theme of the past and the present.”
Emma Straub: Straub’s most recent book is This Time Tomorrow. She is also the owner of the bookstore Books Are Magic in Brooklyn.
“I would describe our bookshelves as haphazardly alphabetical, with rocks and kid art and small mysterious objects scattered throughout. Pictured here: fairly complete Dan Chaon, Michael Chabon and Lauren Groff sections, a paper cutout portrait of me and my husband in front of Books Are Magic, made by Lorraine Nam, an incredible artist, and given to us by Mabel Hsu, a children’s book editor who used to work part-time at the bookstore, several totems made of sticks and string, a rock that lived in my older brother’s bedroom when we were children, a painted pinecone, some galleys, some loved books, some never-read books. In short, a slice of life.”
Hernan Diaz: Author of the novels In the Distance and most recently Trust.
“This is a more or less random section of my library, representing mostly fiction. If the genre taxonomy here is rather vague, so is my attempt at alphabetisation. Different languages coexist rather promiscuously. Even if this is all somewhat chaotic, at least the picture shows that I am most emphatically not a spine-breaker. The notebooks lying on top of the books (spiraled, red, yellow) are manuscripts in different stages of completion. Dickens and Tintin stand guard.”
Jennifer Weiner: Novelist whose books include The Summer Place, Mrs Everything and Good in Bed.
“My house has a gigantic closet that was clearly intended for a woman with an enormous wardrobe. I don’t have lots of clothes, but I do have lots of books, so the closet is now a closet/library, containing the overspill from the shelves in the living room, office and bedroom. I arrange my books by color – sorry not sorry – but books, in addition to being magic portals offering escape and transformation, are also physical objects that you live with, and there’s nothing wrong with arranging them in a way you find aesthetically pleasing.
Up here, I keep favourites that have traveled with me since college, friends’ books, TBR books, books I read as research for my own novels and books with special meaning – the copy of Susan Isaacs’s Almost Paradise was a gift from my mom, who had it inscribed by the author for my 40th birthday.”
Chris Bohjalian: Bohjalian is the author of numerous books, including The Lioness, Hour of the Witch and The Flight Attendant.
“My fiction is alphabetised by author, and my nonfiction, which skews heavily toward history, moves chronologically. So, the Vikings precede the Puritans, who precede John Pershing’s World War I Doughboys. But my collection of F Scott Fitzgerald is extensive (not valuable, but ample), and so I interrupt the alphabetisation of my fiction to give his work and the work about him two shelves of their own. I usually feature one book for my own entertainment when I walk into my library every morning, and currently it is my Armenian translation of The Great Gatsby, which I cherish because I am Armenian.”
Christopher Buckley: Books include Thank You for Smoking, Losing Mum and Pup and Make Russia Great Again. His next novel, Has Anyone Seen My Toes?, will be published in September.
“All the books in this section were originally shelved not just randomly but chaotically, making for endless and time-consuming searching. Then one day my agent called to report that my current book was tanking. I was so depressed that I spent the next three days alphabetising them. I don’t know why, but for some reason, it helped.”