I want to come right out and say that I am neither for nor against a particular way books get organized. I’ve got multiple rooms with bookshelves, and I’ve utilized multiple methods of bookshelf styling. This being said, as a reader and lover of libraries and book stores, I tend to see my books more as collected literature, less as props for decorating.
Yes, I’ve seen this trend.
No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. In fact, I’ve got bookshelves in my formal living room that are loosely organized in color blocks, because it’s a formal room so the bookshelves are more of an artistic statement than a literary one.
Although. . . we do have the complete works of Charles Dickens along with a few other heavy hitters in there, so it’s not like all the books are just for looks.
Honestly, I my hope is that regardless of bookshelf styling method, if there are books on shelves, people might get curious enough to crack them open and read them.
Properly, we should read for power. Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.Ezra Pound
Now that my neutral stance on books as decor props is documented, we’re moving on with how to tackle the bookshelf in your life with the books you actually have read/will read.
Here’s how to get your home library looking like a professional decorator came over and arranged your bookshelves.
1. Clear the Clutter – Clean – Organize/Group your books
If you have a lot of books that you actually read/have read, odds are good that you’ve already got them organized a certain way.
By Category: poetry, mystery, spiritual, non-fiction. Like the library.
Alphabetical by author’s last name. Also like the Library. I mean, no need to reinvent the wheel here.
Maybe you’re like me and you’ve got a special shelf just for the rare, the first editions, the out-of-print books? I LOVE going into bookshops and stumbling into that room! Mine have their own shelf, organized in a way that pleases my eyes. Across the window, the opposite shelf is organized the same way.
My fiction books are below, on the next four shelves, and are arranged like the library: alphabetized by author’s last name.
I also have a small section of poetry–and that shelf is arranged tallest to shortest.
Across from that i’ve got essential oils in a vintage printer’s drawer propped behind a short book stack topped by a brass crane with a photograph of a Key West trip, angled to bounce the eye back to the rest of the bookshelf.
Whatever your system, if it’s working for you, feel free to stick to it!
If you’re looking for a total change up, take all the books off the shelves and start from scratch with whatever new method you’ve decided on.
If you’ve got Stuff & Things that isn’t books on the shelves, at least take all of that down.
May as well go all the way and dust everything too. If you’re taking the time for bookshelf styling, it’s a perfect opportunity to refresh the energy in the space too!
2. Curate Some Objects
Shop your house for things to showcase!
Art that never made it to the walls but you still love, a few framed photos, the shells/rocks/driftwood you collected on vacation, a fancy bottle of champagne saved from a special evening, your collection of hobnail or colored glass pieces, a clock or..whatever has meaning. Or maybe some heirloom that’s been hiding in a cupboard, like your grandma’s silver tea service or vintage plate.
Or make a Homegoods run!
No judgement. I will take any excuse to hit Homegoods. Or a flea market. Or a garage sale.
Ideally, you will curate items that:
1. Flow with the room’s existing color palette and style
2. Incorporate a mix of materials like wood, glass, and metal for added visual depth and interest
3. Set your Books! Flip ‘Em
Like I said: I’m not opposed to some bookshelf styling that’s decorative. Case in point is flipping the spines to the back having the pages out in front. If you look at the top photo, you will see I have used and that I like this look, and it can help visually break up your book rows!
Try going with a vertical stack separated by bookends or decorative items. Or use a flipped horizontal stack as the bookends! Regardless, be sure to flip in a way that looks intentional: create some sort of pattern. More on this for #5. . .
4. Set your Books! Stack ‘Em
Throw in some horizontal stacks!!
If you have a trilogy, drop ‘em and stack ‘em and use ‘em like bookends against a vertical run of books. I did that–and flipped the spines in–at the beginning of my Fiction section in the top photo.
Or use horizontal stacks to break up a really long shelf of books. Just introducing horizontal stacks alone will add that visual interest that is at the heart of bookshelf styling. You could keep the spines out or flip them to show the pages.
Play around with this, stepping back to gauge the effect, until you’re loving the look.
Horizontal stacks work well for large volumes too: largest to smallest sizes like cake tiers, or all same size books. Or a mix of both styles and more on this in #5..
5. Strive for Some Symmetry – it’s at the core of bookshelf styling
Shelf heights, similar objects placed in similar positions along the shelves, horizontal stacks or a pair of bookends, flipped groupings of books. . .the more symmetrical you make your overall bookshelf, the more “styled” it will appear. But also–and perhaps most importantly–symmetry will create order in what is otherwise a chaos of different-looking books. Symmetry is soothing. Symmetry is attractive. Your library doesn’t have to be perfectly symmetrical, but incorporating some sense of balance is what will make you (and everyone else) sigh with delight when you walk into the room and look at your bookshelves.
Another top tip: It’s more visually restful for larger objects, storage bins, volumes (horizontal or vertical stacks) to be on the bottom shelves.
6. Layering: Not Just For The Weather
Once you’ve got the books on the shelves, and a curated collection of decorative objects at your feet, it’s time to really get your bookshelf styling groove on!
Layer in art and objects on those shelves: have some things behind, in line with, and propped in front of your books. Remember the #5 Symmetry guideline.
I tend to have more narrow things like art, or a propped up plate, or maybe a taller book with pretty cover behind the book rows. I also like to have things that are taller in general in the back. Hand in hand with this is putting smaller things towards the front—even in front of the rows of books. Mini pocket sized books, figurines, or framed photos are good options. Again, what you can put in front of your books will depend on the width of your shelves.
If you’ve got large objects and art, consider setting them into your shelves first, and then layering books, then smaller objects.
Another great bookshelf styling look that really plays up the layered idea is having the back of the bookshelf painted for a color pop, or patterned with stencil or wallpaper!
Remember those horizontal stacks? They’re a perfect platform for decorative objects! Try a geode, glass ball in a stand, a small trinket box or basket. Use crystal pillars, vases, or actual bookends at the beginning and/or end of shelves. Use two of the same objects to highlight a book series in the middle of a row of books. If there’s a book I just read, or a book cover I love, I will showcase it bookstore-style in the middle or at the ends of rows as well.
The options for layering in objects are as endless as the object possibilities themselves!
Put on some music, mix up a cocktail, and have some fun!
7. Create Space: Front, Back, Between
Leave space between your rows of books for new acquisitions—and decorative objects—where it feels right.
Example: My fiction section is alphabetized by author’s last name and moves left to right across the window in this bookshelf. I gotta keep my Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody series together. But the books before and after that I can be flexible with. So I’ve left space before these books.
Similarly, I’m collecting Victoria Holt’s novels, so I’m leaving most of a shelf for her and continuing my alphabetical Fictional section on the next shelf down and across the window.
I also keep all the books the same distance from the front end of the shelves. How much distance depends on the width of your shelves, but I like at least 1-2 inches to allow for some layering in front, more in the back.
When I was a store manager for Aldo the instruction was that the shoes on the shelves needed to be 1 inch (tip of middle finger to first knuckle) away from the edge. Any closer and it felt like the shoes were going to jump off the shelf, and this makes customers feel instinctively uneasy (they don’t know why, they just do).
Leaving at least 1 inch of breathing room between the books and the front edge of the shelf will also keep your books from looking suicidal. Just don’t forget to run the Swiffer duster behind as well as in front of them!
8. Snap a Photo
When your library is looking satisfying, snap a pic. If you look at it and something jumps out as not *quite* flowing with the rest–tweak it!
When your library bookshelf photo comes out looking framable– keep it as a trophy and as reference. This way as the things on your shelves shift over time (and they will), you can choose to restore them to the original “best” look–or you can take everything down and try something new!
Either way, you can feel confident about reverting back to the original bookshelf styling you created and loved.