Photo by Aeon
An escape, a sanctuary, a place of pleasure, a memoir. Take these steps to ensure your library is just what you want it to be
by Freya Howarth + BIO
Photo by Aeon
According to Cicero, if you have a library and a garden, you have everything you need. While one might argue that there are some more prosaic needs that must be satisfied before either a library or a garden becomes a top priority, I do appreciate Cicero’s sentiment. And I know I’m not alone. While working in bookshops over the course of a decade, I met plenty of people who care a great deal about the books they read, and many who also find value in the idea of the library itself: that wild, sprawling and chaotic – or, perhaps, methodical, logical and organised – thing that emerges through the accumulation of books over time.
What distinguishes a library from a random pile of books is the considered process of curation. In a public library, it’s the librarian’s role to build a collection that responds to the needs of the community it serves. In the case of your personal library, it serves a community of one – you – and you are both the reader and the librarian. This means that your library won’t look the same as anyone else’s.
The novelist Hanya Yanagihara’s alphabetised collection takes up much of her apartment. Susan Sontag, meanwhile, rejected alphabetisation, arguing that it wouldn’t feel right to store Pynchon and Plato side by side. Alberto Manguel’s collection of some 35,000 books once prompted him to buy an old house in France specifically because it could accommodate his library. Your own library might be hundreds or thousands of books neatly arranged on custom-built shelves, or a more modest number stacked in piles around your home.
Many of us grow our collections on a book-by-book basis: a volume catches our interest in a bookstore, we buy and read it, stick it on a shelf, and repeat. Thinking like a librarian is about taking a step back to consider your collection as a whole, including what you add to it and why. A well-tended library is like a landscape, with its valley of crime novels, its peaks of reference texts, its shores of memoirs. Together, all those individual titles become part of something greater, form something with emergent properties, something totally unique to you.
What’s a personal library for?
Taking a cue from how public libraries operate, the librarian Meaghan Dew, who works on collections and reader development in a Melbourne public library, suggested that a key part of nurturing a personal library is working out what you really want from it. The aim is ‘not what you think your library should be’, she told me, ‘but the library that you are actually going to use and appreciate on a regular basis.’
A personal library can serve as:
It’s good to keep each of these potential functions in mind when setting out to develop your own library. Physical books are intimate objects, and taking one off the shelf can conjure up vivid memories of the time you first read it. When I pick up my old paperback copy of Philip Pullman’s novel The Amber Spyglass (2000), for instance, I’m transported back to a holiday when I completely ignored my family so that I could find out what happened to Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon. As an editor, I also keep a copy of the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (rev ed, 2014) close to hand, alongside various other reference texts on grammar and style. It not only helps me find answers to the questions that come up in the course of my work, it sends me down enjoyable rabbit holes when I stumble across an unfamiliar word.
There are countless other ways that a personal library can be a source of pleasure. Building pleasure into your own collection might involve having some unread crime or romance novels on the shelf for when you’re craving an archetypal plot line. Or maybe it’s having a selection of poetry for when you want to encounter beauty, or keeping Jane Austen’s novels around because you know they’ll always make you laugh.
The paradox of the library in our time is that it aspires to be vast but is also selective and bounded – a tiny droplet of material in a seemingly limitless sea of content. By collecting a library, you’re setting boundaries on the boundless. When the internet beckons with its promise that anything and everything is just a Google search away, opting to tune your attention to a single volume within a library you’ve selected for yourself can be seen as a radical act of paying attention. It’s a form of escape, too – a step out of the ceaselessly churning, self-refreshing timeline, into a space where books from different times and places press up against each other, having the most fascinating conversations, like the guests at one of those fantasy dinner parties where you can invite anyone you like, living or dead.
A library is autobiographical
Part of the value of a personal library lies in the way it can map and help to shape your personal identity and intellectual pathways, changing and growing with you.
My interest in libraries can be traced easily to my parents’ love of reading and book-collecting. In a very early photo of me as a baby, I’m lying on my dad’s chest while he reads a paperback copy of The Valleys of the Assassins (1934) by the British travel writer Freya Stark, my namesake. In the background, a wall of bookshelves. My own personal library began as a couple of shelves of books in my childhood bedroom. I remember how important it was to me to have things that stood apart from my family’s possessions. Some of my first books still have a place in my library, which (like me) has grown up around them. My library has, I think, always played a crucial role in the formation of my identity, with certain books becoming personal touchstones for my values and interests.
In the middle of one of Melbourne’s very long COVID-19 lockdowns, I moved into a house with a garden (Cicero would approve), and into a room with no bookshelves. After several failed attempts to order shelves online, I stacked my books in piles on the floor, along the top of my dresser, on my bedside tables, on my desk. As the dampness of late autumn took root in the draughty old house, I watched with concern as the windowpanes fogged up and the covers of my books started to curl from the moisture. I suppose that this is when I first felt the full weight of my library – a volume of volumes, objects that I cared about and that I was responsible for protecting from damage and decay.
And there’s nothing like the challenge of packing all your books to reveal the ways in which a library, for all its pleasures and advantages, can also become a burden. That’s why it makes sense to periodically give some thought to which books you truly need and want to carry with you through life’s movements. Like a garden, a library will tend to grow richer and more rewarding through strategic pruning.
Given how valuable a well-tended library can be, you might be interested in becoming a more conscious personal librarian. Below, I’ll suggest ways to review and reorganise your existing collection and to build it up with books that hold your memories, feed your curiosity, and give you pleasure.
Take stock of your existing collection
Chances are you already own a few books – maybe more than a few. Rather than thinking of building a library as a process that you start from scratch, consider what the books you have acquired over the years can tell you about your reading tastes and interests. These books show you where you’ve been and point to ideas and topics that you might want to explore further.
If you want to be really thorough about it, you might start your assessment by taking all your books off your shelves and spreading them out on the floor. This dismantling of a familiar arrangement can help you see anew the items that have become part of the furniture of your home.
Once you’ve made a bit of a mess, it’s helpful to start grouping your books into categories. You can begin with very general categories, such as ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’, or broad genre or subject-matter categories such as ‘history’, ‘philosophy’, ‘crime fiction’, ‘memoir’ and so on, much like the sections in a bookshop or library. As you go, you might realise you have a lot of books in the ‘history’ category – so many, in fact, that it would be useful to start dividing them into subsections such as ‘ancient history’, ‘medieval history’, ‘French history’, etc, getting finer and finer grained. Some sections might not need this treatment: if you don’t read many novels, grouping them all together as ‘fiction’ might suffice.
Through this process of sorting and categorising, you’ll start to develop a picture of your reading life and tastes to date. Looking at the categories that seem to generate the most subcategories should give you a pretty clear indication that they represent an area, genre or topic that you’re especially interested in, and this might guide later decisions about acquiring and organising your books.
Decide which books to keep and which to give away
An important part of the assessing and sorting phase is figuring out which books still hold value for you (whether it’s informational, sentimental or some other kind of value) and learning to recognise when you’ve outgrown or moved away from other books. So, sort with a view to identifying books you want to keep and those that you could donate. By pruning your collection from time to time, you can gain further clarity about your tastes and interests and, of course, make space to add new, more considered books.
While sorting, instead of forming the usual piles of books to ‘keep’ or ‘donate’, consider being more specific. It might help to first sort books into ‘read’ and ‘unread’ piles. Then, looking at the books you’ve already read, you can identify: books that you loved and want to reread someday (keep); books you feel like you didn’t totally understand at the time, but that you’ve kept thinking about and might need to try again later (keep); books that you enjoyed at the time, but that haven’t really stuck in your mind and that you wouldn’t rebuy today (consider donating); books you abandoned halfway through and which you have no desire to restart (consider donating).
Among the books you haven’t read yet, you might look for: books you’ve always wanted to read, but haven’t got around to yet (generally worth keeping); books that you would buy again if you didn’t already have a copy (keep); books that once seemed like they would be worth reading or helpful for researching a particular topic, but that you no longer feel you need (consider donating).
Whether read or unread, books that are particularly beautiful as objects, or that are meaningfully connected to a particular time, place, person or memory are likely worth hanging on to, even if you find it hard to imagine when you might get around to actually reading (or rereading) them.
These categories are not exhaustive, but hopefully they will give you a jumping off point for creating your own sorting heuristics. Getting rid of books is a challenge verging on the impossible for some people, while other book lovers manage to be pretty ruthless and decisive when it comes to whittling down their collection. Although pruning can be a very useful step, you needn’t force yourself to get rid of a book if you’re unsure about it. It’s OK to hang on to some ‘maybes’ for a while. Sometimes, you’ll rediscover a book years later and be glad you kept it.
Identify your personal classics
In his essay ‘Why Read the Classics’ (1991), Italo Calvino sets out an itemised list to define the idea of classics and explain the value of reading them. What emerges from this is not a definitive and universal list of books that all people should read; instead, Calvino creates a framework for deciding on a far more personal list of books that have an enduring place in your own reading life. These are the books that you keep coming back to, keep thinking about, and that are points of comparison for everything that comes after. Some of these books might be widely acknowledged as classics – for instance, anything published in the distinctive black-clad Penguin Classics, the Penguin Modern Classics or in their orange Popular Penguin series. On the other hand, some of your classics might not feature on these types of lists. What matters is that they matter to you.
It can be helpful to group your classics on a shelf together for ready reference. In their book The Novel Cure (2013), the bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin recommend dedicating a shelf to your favourite books as a way to (re)affirm your tastes, and also to give you something to reach for if you are in a reading rut and need to be reminded of how good reading can be. ‘If you want to have a few series that are comfort reads for you, that you are going to reread during down moments or times when things are a bit hard, then it might be worth having those on hand as well,’ Dew, the librarian, suggested. Your old favourites can be a reliable source of solace.
Finding your own classics also means that you can break free of any prescriptive ideas about a limited canon of ‘great books’. You might gain a lot from reading some of the books on those lists, but it can also be rewarding to broaden your canon (see The Paris Review’s ‘Feminize Your Canon’ series, and sources for books by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ writers, for examples of how you might deliberately expand your reading).
Add depth and breadth to your library with books that speak to each other
Once you’ve assessed your existing collection, you’re ready for possibly the most exciting part of building a library: adding more books! But which ones? To start with, books themselves are an excellent guide for what to read next. They are bundles of influences and references, so to read one is like reading a map, with paths heading off in all directions – towards the books that came before and influenced the author, and onward to later books that the author influenced.
In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), Simone de Beauvoir’s account of her childhood and adolescence is given shape by her memories of reading certain novels: Little Women (1868-69) by Louisa May Alcott, The Mill on the Floss (1860) by George Eliot, and Alain-Fournier’s classic coming-of-age novel Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), or The Lost Estate, among many others. Collecting and reading these books is one path to understanding Beauvoir’s early influences. And if you have enjoyed Beauvoir’s memoirs and works of philosophy, you might also enjoy reading about the intellectual milieu in which she lived and worked, described in Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café (2016), which might, in turn, inspire you to read the works of some of the other writers it mentions. Or, going back to Beauvoir’s memoirs, maybe you were drawn to the story she tells of her all-consuming childhood friendship, so you might decide to seek out more in that vein in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (2011-14). (The links you find between books needn’t be obvious, nor even ones that other readers would identify.) From a single author or a single book, infinite reading pathways open to you.
If there’s a particular topic you’re interested in, plan to build up this section in your library. If you’re interested in the natural world, you might want this section to include the establishing classics of the field, eg, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), and modern classics of the environmental movement, eg, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), as well as survey texts that reflect on, and offer context for, the field itself, such as Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature (2015). The website Five Books is a great place to find reading lists tailored to a growing range of topics, from the very niche to the broad and sweeping.
Seek recommendations, but leave room for chance discoveries
With limited time and nearly limitless options (more than 4 million new titles were published just in 2019 in the United States alone), you’ll want to have some reliable sources at hand to help you sift through the books you’re thinking about acquiring. Here are some useful approaches:
If you only ever pick up books you know you’ll like, however, your reading experiences might be a bit like going to the same restaurant and always ordering the same thing on the menu. Sure, it’s reliable, but you don’t know what you might be missing out on. And, through repetition, even that favourite dish might start to lose its flavour. Sometimes, the best books are the ones whose rewards you least expect; other times, you need to read a ‘bad’ book as a palate cleanser, to recalibrate and reaffirm your tastes. Embracing serendipity, then, is another important part of creating a library that delights you.
There are many ways to introduce the element of chance into your library. You could:
Put a bit of order in your collection
There are many ways you can arrange your books, and I hesitate to be too prescriptive here. As with the steps outlined above, the point of being your own librarian is choosing what you think will work best for you.
Some of the options you might consider include:
Other approaches, which might be at odds with some of the above strategies, include organising books based on height, or as parts of a series. Unless you strictly adhere to the Dewey decimal system (which even public libraries diverge from these days for ease of use, Dew told me), then you’ll likely have to reconcile sometimes contradictory considerations.
Once you’ve decided on the basic organisational principles for your library as a whole, you might also want to think about systems to help you navigate within the individual volumes. If you feel comfortable annotating your books, you can create a personalised index at the back of a book as you read it. On those conveniently blank pages, I often note certain page numbers and a few words to help me remember what it was that I found interesting there. That way, I can easily find my way back to a quote or a key section to reread it and refer to it later. If you’d prefer not to write in your books, you could do something similar in a separate reading journal.
Organising your books carefully is a good way to ensure you’re getting from your library all the benefits it could offer you. For example, grouping together the books that speak to each other can help you see, at a glance, the connections you’ve made in your reading. Grouping together your personal classics, as suggested by Berthoud and Elderkin, can encourage you to pick them up again to enjoy all the benefits of rereading. When you can locate any book easily, it’s more likely you’ll be able to refer to it or lend it to a friend.
Nevertheless, libraries have a habit of growing a bit wild over time; many books cannot be easily categorised, and the sections tend to blur around the edges. This is OK too. A library should be a little bit chaotic and contradictory – after all, it will inevitably contain ideas that disagree with each other. A library of perfect harmony would be a rather boring and uninspiring place.
Building a personal library when money or space are limited
Personal libraries have always been something of a symbol of wealth, prestige and power. Increased literacy rates and innovations such as mass-market paperbacks have made books far more accessible than they once were, but the idea of the personal library hasn’t totally shaken off all its connotations of elitism and inaccessibility yet – think of the ‘credibility bookcases’ that were such a feature of Zoom backgrounds early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite this elitist past, I’d argue that the benefits of a personal library can and should be accessible to all. If we think creatively about the best ways to access the value that a personal library offers, it’s possible to cultivate a library – or something like it – even when space and money are in short supply.
Create a record of your reading life
Do you typically borrow books from your local library, read ebooks or listen to audiobooks rather than buying physical copies? Try creating your own system for cataloguing what you have read and what you would like to read. This could be anything from a simple list of titles to a more comprehensive record of quotes that marked you and that you want to be able to refer to later, or even a more detailed reading diary of the thoughts that these books inspired in you.
There are many benefits to keeping a record of your reading, whether you’re doing so because you can’t have a large personal library in physical form or because you find it hard to remember what you’ve read. For 12 years now, I’ve been keeping a written record of the books I’ve read. I’d just started working in a bookshop and realised I found it difficult to remember what I’d read when I wanted to recommend a book to a customer. Now, just seeing the title and the name of the author is enough to jog my memory, not just of the book itself, but of the time when I was reading it, where I was, and what was on my mind. A few jotted-down words on a page can be almost as powerful a memory prompt as holding the book itself in your hands.
You can keep your record in whatever format suits you best, from a notebook dedicated to the purpose, to tech-enabled options such as Goodreads or an Excel spreadsheet. ‘Instagram can be a really useful tool, or even just taking a photo of the book you’ve just finished,’ Dew suggested. ‘The cover will often jolt some remembrance of what you enjoyed about it or didn’t like about it.’
Shop for second-hand books
If space is no issue but money is, the world of second-hand books offers all the joys of a treasure hunt and often allows you to buy books for a fraction of their retail price. Second-hand bookselling is an important part of a flourishing and sustainable book ecosystem. Each book that wasn’t quite right for one person’s library will hopefully find a new one thanks to a second-hand bookshop. The key is to visit every shop you pass – and visit often, since you never know when they might receive a collection of books that are perfect for you. With second-hand shopping, you can’t always expect to find the one book you’ve been searching for (although you might be surprised by just how often this does happen), so go in with an open mind. This prepares you for chance encounters with unexpected books.
Visiting second-hand bookshops while travelling is a great way to find books you’ve been struggling to find locally. It’s also generally a pleasant way to explore a new place (and see what they read there). Some of my most prized books are a few first and second editions of Freya Stark’s travel writing, which I found in a travel and adventure bookstore in a small town in New Zealand. The shop itself was located in a 19th-century warehouse, which also housed a replica of a boat used by the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton in a daring rescue mission. Those volumes are now forever associated with that shop, a memorable family holiday, and the sight of that incongruous, marooned boat – an invitation to further adventures.
The writer and bibliophile Alberto Manguel has built a career out of his reading life, and his enviable library features in several of his books, but the slim volume Packing My Library (2018) is particularly poignant. It’s a meditation on the sadness of being compelled to dismantle his library as he enters a new stage in his life, accompanied by ‘digressions’ into the history of libraries.
In the essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ (1931), Walter Benjamin discusses a range of topics pertinent to the personal librarian, ranging from methods of book acquisition (including theft) to the idea that a collector is involved in a perpetual tussle between the forces of order and chaos.
If you’re not yet sold on the merits of rereading, let Italo Calvino change your mind with his essay ‘Why Read the Classics’ (1991).
In their book The Novel Cure (2013), the bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin offer book recommendations alphabetised by ailment. This entertaining and easy-to-navigate guide promises ‘cures’, or at least consolation, for everything from a broken leg to a broken heart, and features sections on some of the particular problems a reader might face, including ‘Find one of your books, inability to’ and ‘Depletion of library through lending’.
A good library will generally contain a number of unread books. In her essay ‘Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are More Valuable to Our Lives than Read Ones’ (2015), Maria Popova makes a strong case for letting the unread books stack up.
But if the idea of someone asking you about one of these unopened volumes fills you with dread, consider handing them a copy of the philosopher Pierre Bayard’s entertaining book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007). Behind the provocative title lies a fascinating discussion of what it actually means to have read a book, or partially read a book, or to have read about a book.
For more ideas about how you could arrange your books, seek inspiration from other great collectors in the article ‘How 11 Writers Organize Their Personal Libraries’ (2017) by Emily Temple for Literary Hub.