A Color-Coordinated Bookshelf Could Change Your Life

Or ruin your reputation. Two editors face off.

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A Perfectly Gradiated Bookshelf Marks an Organized, Well-Read Life

Abbey Maxbauer, administrative assistant, @abbeymaxbauer

The woman with her books lined up by hue is exactly the woman I want to be. I want my copy of The Idiot right next to my copy of Sweetbitter, and as far away as possible from my copies of Modern Lovers and Atonement. I want my bookshelf to look like a bridge of Pantone color chips—every color represented, each situated adjacent to its closest cousin.

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Visual satisfaction aside, just think about who the woman with shelves like this is. She doesn't stop at color-coding her books. Her sink is always clear of dishes, her hair washed daily, her bedroom floor unburdened of crumpled clothes. Sure, there is always a little gap on the bookshelf from where her current read has been removed, but she will replace it once she's done; she is not an abandoner of books, nor a reader of many at once. She is focused.

'And if arranging bound piles of inky paper are my only attempt at interior design, it is my responsibility to curate them to the best of my ability.'

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It might seem like a silly thing to fixate on, but books are my preferred form of home decor. I would prefer a colorfully jacketed novel or memoir over any vase or wall hanging. In bookstores, I'm a sucker for visual intrigue (though I have found that beautifully rendered covers most often accompany wonderfully written books.) And if arranging bound piles of inky paper are my only attempt at interior design, it is my responsibility to curate them to the best of my ability.

In the spirit of transparency, you should know that I am not the woman with the perfectly gradiated bookshelf yet. But when I become her, I will be the best version of me.

If You Color-Coordinate Your Bookshelves, Are You Really Human?

Rebecca Bates, senior editor, @re.beccabates

My prejudice against color-coding bookshelves and the fiends who code them is founded on an elitism I make no effort to conceal. That doesn't mean it's not real; I really don't like it. That's a slippery slope of violent rhetoric, of course, but the fact remains that the idea of thoughtful human beings spending hours organizing their books by color makes me sad in the way that people who say poetry is too hard to understand make me sad or the way that women who use a flatiron on their hair until the ends shatter make me sad.

Organizing books by the color of their spines is the decorating equivalent of posting "Omg, my heart is so full right now" on Facebook. Both things are devoid of content. If you say your "heart is so full right now," you aren't actually explaining what happened that brought you to that overwhelming, ecstatic, and terrifying space where the capacity for all feeling is present. You're just deflecting real expression and intimacy. Likewise, arranging books by spine color is an intellectual begging off. It's all surface, a garish ROYGBIV veneer that suggests you have no stomach for complexity. Someone who color-sorts their books would rather things just be cute, but has no idea what cute actually looks like.

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A somewhat related story and a cautionary tale: One summer night a couple of friends and I were leaving a bad party when a handsome man on a bicycle stopped in front of us, introduced himself as Miguel, told us he was a street fashion photographer, and asked if we would come to his apartment for a drink. We were 22 and wanted everything for free, so we went with him. His apartment was small, but it had exposed brick and an actual antique cast iron stove. Across the brick wall were a couple hundred books sorted by color.

'Someone who covers up most of an exposed brick wall with a book collection organized by color and then blames it on a possibly fictional former lover—is that person not all deflection, all surface, all garish veneer?'

This was offensive to us on two levels. 1) We were graduate students in literature and Miguel's book organization seemed insulting to the books themselves. 2) Who puts a rainbow over a brick wall?

"My girlfriend did this," Miguel explained. "My ex-girlfriend."

When Miguel left the room for a minute, one of my friends said, "We have to go." We bolted without saying anything to our host. I don't have any striking conclusions to draw from this story, but someone who covers up most of an exposed brick wall with a book collection organized by color and then blames it on a possibly fictional former lover—is that person not all deflection, all surface, all garish veneer?

I recognize books are cultural props. J.Crew decorates stores with recently released monographs, and I once found an out-of-print design book at a Kate Spade store (though it was not for sale). They look nice, and we all like to be around nice-looking things. But books are supposed to be functional props.

'Yes, I want someone to evaluate the look of my shelves and think of me as a person who's built an eclectic and diverse collection.'

Example: My personal bookshelves can no longer contain the number of books I own. I once tried to organize my books by category: fiction, poetry, critical theory, books that are more like art objects, monographs, pop-feminist memoir—and the process fell apart. Most new acquisitions are now just stuffed into the spaces between the top of properly lined-up books and the bottom of the next shelf.

When someone comes to my apartment for the first time, I assume they take quick stock of my bookshelves and how they are or are not organized. I do the same when I visit someone else. Yes, I want someone to evaluate the look of my shelves and think of me as a coastal elite, as a person who's built an eclectic and diverse collection, who starts reading a book and then stops reading it and then starts it again a year later, whose writing practice involves reaching for a couple of books to use as references and then putting them away without thinking about where I've just put them. But that's because I am that kind of a person. The surface reflects what's really there.

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