The Organization of Your Bookshelves Tells Its Own Story

The complexity of the human heart can be expressed in the arrangement of one’s books.

black and white photo of a man looking out from a bookshelf
Getty ; The Atlantic

My father loved books more than anything else in the world. He owned about 11,000 of them at the time of his death, in March of 2021, at 83 years old. There were books in his living room and bedroom, books in the hallways and closets and kitchen.

Sometimes I stop in the center of my own home like a bird arrested in flight, entranced by the books that line my walls. I live in a small Manhattan apartment, and I, too, have books in the living room, the bedroom, the hallway, the closets. Often, I stare at them because I’m puzzling over their geography. I wonder if I’ve placed any book in the wrong spot, according to an emotional map I’ve made of my bookshelves. As I gaze at the titles, the associations come tumbling out. Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs is next to a biography of Patrick Dennis called Uncle Mame, because Williams and Dennis had many things in common: Pathos. Cruel fathers. Spectacular female characters. A Dictionary of Yiddish Slang & Idioms is next to Heartburn because, however secular Nora Ephron was, her humor comes from deep within her Jewishness. The Lord of the Rings is between Time and Again and Rosemary’s Baby because I like how they form a triumvirate of fantasy stories that have nothing in common save my personal opinion that they are the finest of their genre. (Many would argue that Rosemary’s Baby belongs in horror, not fantasy, but my system allows for the blurring of these lines.)

And then there’s the shelf above my desk. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that it’s where I keep my favorite books. A more esoteric logic is at work. In About Alice, Calvin Trillin wrote that his wife had a large envelope marked Important Stuff, in which she collected letters the children had written her, records of their accomplishments, and other ephemera. She seemed to know what belonged in that envelope on raw instinct. So it is with the shelf above my desk. Here are the books that speak to some part of my sensibility—my youthful daydreams, the worlds I once imagined for myself. The Princess Bride is up there—I read it in a single day when I was 12 years old. “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” Who could put it down after an opening line like that? Also on this shelf: Birds of New York Field Guide, because I used to fantasize that my newborn would one day be a junior member of the National Audubon Society. Next to that: Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers, a long-ago gift from my mother that embodied her high standards of kindness and etiquette.

My books about writing are in the center of the shelf, because writing is what I do at my desk. They make me less afraid to be alone with my keyboard. Among them is On Writing, by Jorge Luis Borges. Yet this book is not there because it is about writing. It is there because of my father.

My father loved Borges. I remember him reading aloud a passage in which Borges expressed his admiration for how “physical” English is. It had ways to describe motions through space, he said, that were more keenly expressive than those he could find in his native language, Spanish. My father read the passage with sensual care, the way a gourmand enjoys a bowl of freshly harvested peas (M. F. K. Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets) or the way James Beard uses brisk rhythm and precise timing to achieve the optimal texture for scrambled eggs (James Beard, Beard on Food). My father’s joy in Borges’s words spread gently across his face in a smile that tugged at his lips and lit up his eyes. When he read aloud, you knew, deep in your bones, that you were learning a kind of catechism.

My father especially loved Borges’s short story “The Library of Babel,” which is about a library that is its own universe, filled with books whose typographical symbols seem to be arranged at random. Within the collection exists every possible combination of 25 characters (22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space). The library thus holds every book ever written—and every book that ever could be written—and all their permutations. This drives the story’s narrator to despair, for though the library contains all the treasures of the human mind, they are effectively impossible to find. My father, a graduate of Caltech, loved mathematics as much as he loved books. Here we parted company, and when he described “The Library of Babel,” my mind began to wander, though I did not let on. I could no more spoil his delight than I could knock over a child’s sandcastle. Besides, he had conveyed what mattered: his own love for the story, which, after his death, gripped me with the force of incantation.

Now I use “The Library of Babel” as a metaphor for the landscape of my own library. My books are not organized alphabetically, or, for the most part, by genre. The arrangement seems to have been made entirely at random, unless you know the quirk by which it was conceived. Books are placed next to one another for companionship, based on some kinship or shared sensibility that I believe ties them together. The Little Prince is next to Act One, by Moss Hart, because I think Hart and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry convey, in their respective works, a similar purity of heart and openness of expression. The Little Prince is a French fable set primarily in the Sahara; Act One is a memoir of a poor Jewish boy’s journey to Broadway. But to me, they are about the same thing: finding what matters in life, and shutting out all that is of no consequence.

I marvel that the complexity of the human heart can be expressed in the arrangement of one’s books. Inside this paper universe, I find sense within confusion, calm within a storm, the soothing murmur of hundreds of books communing with their neighbors. Opening them reveals treasured passages gently underlined in pencil; running my hand over the Mylar-wrapped hardcovers reminds me of how precious they are. Not just the books themselves, but the ideas within, the recollections they evoke. The image of my father at his desk. The sound of his diction and intonation as he brought each character to life and drove each plot twist home. In these things, I beheld the card catalog of the infinite library of his heart, the map of his soul, drawn with aching clarity in the topography of his books.


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