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How I Turned Cluttered Bookshelves Into a Display of My Life

Books make a home. Use your personal library to add personality and spark to your space.

I recently met a super fabulous woman. She is a calligrapher, painter, and all-around stylish lady, whose home truly reflects her joyous, artistic energy. One of the things that stood out in her home was this beautiful glass shelf with brass trim in which she displayed all sorts of personal and family mementos—from vintage photographs to gorgeous whitewashed coral, from decks of playing cards to colorful boxes of matchsticks. But what I loved most of all was how she artfully stacked books in mini collections on various “cubes” of the shelf. They were color-themed, with stacks in shades of red, pink, and orange that subtly reflected the palette of the entire room.

I immediately went home and looked at my four long floating shelves with books of all sizes and shapes—and colors—crammed into each other. I had a system (sort of) that went something like: poetry, Asian literature (my graduate major), art books, and then nonfiction and fiction in a haphazard fashion. Scattered about were some photos, a silver reclining Buddha from Thailand, an art project of my daughter’s, and a journalism award. Suddenly, the entire concept of my bookshelves felt incredibly uninspired. So off I went, pulling off whatever titles I could find in hues of sea green and turquoise. I started with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and an hour later, I had a pile that spoke to the coral, teal and honeyed wood palette of my living room.

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I admit it felt strange because I grew up with books all over the place. My dad worked in publishing, so our house was always full of them. When I moved to New York City to work in publishing myself, my little apartments were crammed with all the free titles I brought home. In my hyper-literary world, it was a badge of honor to have books overflowing off shelves. When I briefly spent a summer in California, I remember a friend and I commenting on how it seemed that none of the houses we went to had books in them. Perhaps dog-eared, varied-sized books didn’t go with the sleekness of them. But, to us, a house without books was not really a home.

What would life be like if I couldn’t easily access the poems of Sandra Cisneros when I was heartbroken or those of Charles Wright when I craved calm? My collected works of Lu Hsun when I wanted a reminder of the brave, modern writers in Communist China? Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast when I had the itch to go traveling? These books were not just material to be read, and re-read—they were signposts of my life, bookmarks, if you will, that could take me back to myriad chapters of my life. It didn’t matter what they looked like, or how beat up they were — they belonged.



Those books are still with me, but as a slightly more mature woman who now cares a bit more about home décor, I want to keep them near, and also provide a place where they can be appreciated and elevated to the status they deserve — authentic conversation-starters. I’m not nearly as good at organizing my books as the woman who inspired me, but I’m getting better. My Chinese lit books are now grouped with my silver reclining Buddha, my Charles Wright and W.S. Merwin poetry are surrounded by natural elements like shells and pine cones. Some are simply placed together for color. Not only do the books come alive, but so do the personal effects. In these eye-catching displays, my whole life is here for my own remembrances, both happy and sad, as well as for those visiting — friends new and old — to better understand the whole person I am.

How do your books tell your life story, and are you living with them as fully as you could be? Maybe you can simply stack favorites on a coffee table, create mini displays among ephemera on shelves, or group by size or color. You need not be a decorator to incorporate your books into your home’s persona. Start small. You may be surprised at how good it looks, the connections you make, and how guests respond to even simple adjustments. Trust the girl who carted boxes of books from Maryland to numerous apartments in New York City, to finally Seattle, always refusing to “cut down on the clutter.” I still haven’t cut down; I just realize now that books should never be clutter.





Photo Credits: Shutterstock


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