THE WASHINGTON POST – My shelves are a mess. It’s not just that I have too many books and too little space. I’m also just plain disorganized. It has not always been so. The bookshelves I assembled years ago, pre-children, remain mostly intact: a library full of poetry, arranged alphabetically by author, and several libraries filled with fiction, also by author’s last name. These shelves are now mainly used for decoration or reference or even as a lending library for guests. But there’s more, much more: the pile tumbling on my desk – supporting the computer I’m typing on – and the volumes stuffed frantically in my bedroom bookcase and stacked in towers on and around my bedside table. These are the books that are part of my daily life – for work, for pleasure, sometimes both. There’s no rhyme or reason to the way I organize them, but as I read in one of the books I consulted (then threw away) to help me solve my little problem “If it’s where you wanted it to be, then it’s organized.” I adopt this as the organizing principle of my book. Don’t tell my children.
I asked nine writers to share a photo of a favorite shelf (or what social media might call a “shelf”), explain the organizing principle (if there is one), and tell me a bit about what’s on that shelf. Here is 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 organized according to when in my life I read the books. So, for example, there is a shelf of novels that I read in 1992-1993, when I lived in New York, commuting between Manhattan and my teaching job at IS 227 in Queens. There’s another shelf that I read when I was breastfeeding my first child, Maxx. There’s a shelf that I read when I was going through my divorce, when I was being treated for cancer, etc. But if a book was lucky, it was moved to this shelf! This is my “favorite book” shelf and my book All-time favorite is JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey I received a first edition for my 50th birthday from my kids – which really means we can credit my ex-husband, who somehow found one. (He was looking for a signed first edition, but that apparently added a cipher.) Never mind – it’s the best gift I’ve ever received .
Diana Gabaldon: author of the Outlander series. The final episode is Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone.
This is part of my working reference collection, which includes some 80 herbal guides (some weirder than others); a dozen slang dictionaries; a “Claire” shelf, which contains medical references (like the Merck manual which represents the temporal limit of his medical knowledge in the Outlander series) and biographies written by and about doctors; historical medical stuff; Scottish stuff (history, language, customs, geography, Scottish romances and poetry, etc.); various Big Books, ranging from a two-volume collection of Carl Barks’ stories of Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck to books on historical costumes, maps, and things like hurricane history. Additionally, I have biographies of people I think I should know, medical histories, a small collection of pornography, and a shelf of family writings (my grandfather occasionally wrote fantastic short stories), the only published book of my mother (professional – as in the teaching profession) and my great-grandmother’s Bible. There are about 2000 books here in my office. There are another 1,500 downstairs. Then there is a “real” library in my old family home. Charming and peaceful room. Whenever I’m there, I always take the time to sit down and read quietly for about an hour.
Garrett Graff: author of, among others, The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert S. Mueller III’s FBI and Watergate: A New History.
“I often feel like ‘book management’ is my main job – buying them, reading them, putting them on the shelves. When my wife and I moved from DC seven years ago, we had about 5,000 pounds of books and I’m still piling on at the rate of about 200 a year. Despite this, I can tell you where every book actually is in my library. I usually group them by subject first, then loosely try to organize them by color and/or subject so the shelves don’t look too chaotic. I have my Cold War bookshelves; my 9/11 shelves; my chair shelves; and, of course, a handful of fiction shelves. I sprinkle a lot of historical artifacts and images, too, that I have accumulated. My shelf on the Richard M Nixon tapes actually has as a bookend a boxed hazmat suit that once sat 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 shelf principle is to have things close at hand that make me smile or make me think. This shelf is near my 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 the books. My favorite authors and titles, things that move me, things I learned from, things that changed me. My reading habits are diverse. I need Something Like Love by Beverly Jenkins close to The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel.
Nothing like having the exploits of the court of Henry VIII alongside the political struggles of Olivia Sterling. The latest from Jayne Allen, Kristan Higgins and Nancy Johnson keeps me attached to the present, while Kate Quinn, Maya Angelou, Sadeqa Johnson and Denny S Bryce bring the past to life in new and rich ways. And, of course, my professional achievements – my titles and awards – round out my shelves. Probably on the floor near this library is my latest manuscript, again reflecting my theme of past and present.
Emma Straub: Straub’s most recent book is This Time Tomorrow. She also owns the Books Are Magic bookstore in Brooklyn.
“I would describe our shelves as random alphabetical, with rocks and children’s art and little mystery items scattered throughout. Pictured: Pretty extensive sections of Dan Chaon, Michael Chabon and Lauren Groff, a paper cut portrait of me and my husband in front of Books Are Magic, made by amazing artist Lorraine Nam, and donated to us by Mabel Hsu, a children’s animator and book editor who worked part-time at the bookstore, several totems made of sticks and string, a rock that lived in my older brother’s room when we were kids, a painted pinecone, galleys, loved books, never read books. In short, a slice of life.
Hernan Diaz: Author of the novels In the Distance and more recently Trust.
“It’s a more or less haphazard section of my library, mostly representing fiction. While the taxonomy of genres here is rather vague, so is my attempt at literacy. Different languages coexist rather promiscuously. this is somewhat chaotic, at least the photo shows that i am definitely not a spine breaker The notebooks above the books (spiral, red, yellow) are manuscripts in various 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 meant for a woman with a huge wardrobe. I don’t have a lot of clothes, but I have a lot of books, so the closet is now a closet/library, containing the overflowing shelves in the living room, office and bedroom I organize my books by color – sorry not sorry – but books, in addition to being magical portals of escape and transformation, are also physical objects with which you live, and there’s nothing wrong with arranging them in a way that you find aesthetically pleasing.
Here I keep favorites that traveled with me from college, books from friends, TBR books, books I read as research for my own novels, and books with special meaning – the copy of Almost Heaven by Susan Isaacs was a gift from my mother, who had it inscribed by the author for my 40th birthday.
Chris Bohjalian: Bohjalian is the author of many books, including The Lioness, Hour of the Witch, and The Flight Attendant.
“My fiction is listed alphabetically by author, and my non-fiction, which leans heavily toward history, moves chronologically. So Vikings precedes Puritans, which precedes John Pershing’s World War I Doughboys. But my collection of F Scott Fitzgerald is vast (not precious, but ample), and so I interrupt the literacy of my fiction to give his work and the work on him two shelves of their own. own entertainment when I walk into my library every morning, and currently it’s my Armenian translation of The Great Gatsby, which I cherish because I’m Armenian.
Christopher Buckley: Books include Thanks for Smoking, Losing Mum and Pup and Make Russia Great Again. Her next novel, Has Anyone Seen My Toes?, will be out in September.
“All the books in this section were originally arranged not just haphazardly but in a chaotic manner, which made searching endless and time-consuming. Then one day my agent called to report that my current book was out of order. J was so depressed that I spent the next three days alphabetizing them, I don’t know why, but for some reason it helped.