How do you organize your bookshelf?


Once upon a time, I had 3,000 books. They filled a wall twenty-four feet long, by fourteen feet high. I even had a library ladder so I could reach the ones on the top few shelves. My books were divided into two sections: fiction on the right side of the fireplace, non-fiction on the left. The left side held more books; the right side, more knickknacks. The books were then arranged in alphabetical order by author. Hannah Arendt to Howard Zinn on the left, and I have to admit, I have no memory of who the authors were in the fiction section. What I do know is that I moved them in cardboard boxes at least six times.


I’d joined the Book of the Month Club as a senior in high school and kept that up until I married six years later. There were textbooks I’d hung onto over the years. I still have one from my undergrad days — Reader in Contemporary Religions — and just about all from my two stints in graduate school. Then there were all the books I bought on impulse, because they caught my eye, or my fancy, or my attention. Like the eighteen hardcovers by Bertrand Russell I found over the course of two years in a used bookstore in Kent, Ohio. I’ll bet not many people even know who Bertrand Russell was. I’ll only say that if I’d lived in his time, and had fallen in love with him, I’d consider myself quite lucky.


One of three bookshelves in my little office


When I went into the Peace Corps, I abandoned the majority of my books to a Used Book Store opening just off the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. But some I put in storage for my return. Enough to currently fill two narrow bookshelves and one long, low one.


My long, low bookshelf


Then there is my Kindle with about 45 works on it, and my iBooks application on my iPhone, with about 35. Most of these, I have to admit, are free samples of books I will probably wind up buying.


my Kindle


Finally, there is the pile next to my bed, and the pile on the table where I eat my morning oatmeal, and the pile on my hard copy edit table in my office. These are my “currently reading” piles. I won’t take those photos quite yet. For today I want to talk about the books I hang onto.

The books that sit on my bookshelves.

The books I move just enough to dust around.

The books I turn to every now and again because I know just what I want to look up and have a good idea where I can find the exact wording.


The books at arm’s reach


The books that are my friends.


I’ll start with the smallest section: Peace Corps memoirs that worked for me. There are seven of them, which is not to say only seven Peace Corps memoirs are good ones. It’s only to say that of the more than thirty I’ve collected, only seven worked for me. There are hundreds more I could pick from, but I haven’t.




Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, by Moritz Thomsen (1969, Ecuador, South America)

The Village of Waiting, George Packer  (1984, Togo, Africa)

Mango Elephants in the Sun, by Susana Herrera (1999, Cameroon, Africa)

River Town, by Peter Hessler (2001, China)

Nine Hills to Nambonkana, by Sarah Erdman  (2003, Ivory Coast, Africa)

Monique and the Mango Rains, by Kris Holloway  (2007, Mali, Africa)

First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria, by Eve Brown-White  (2009, Ecuador, South America)


Only the last one was funny. Really funny.


While the others include amusing anecdotes, all are poignant, gripping, lush, insightful, and compassionate accounts of one person’s experience in “the hardest job you’ll ever love.” I read River Town and The Village of Waiting before I left and the rest when I got home, in preparation for writing my own Peace Corps memoir.

I’d like to read them all again some day. That’s why they stay on my shelf. That’s why I keep dusting around them. That’s why I won’t let them go. I plan to read them just as soon as I get through those other “currently reading” piles on my bedside table, my breakfast table, and my editing desk.


No wonder I never watch TV anymore.


All alone in the corner, with no one to play with.


How about you? What’s on your bookshelf? Or in your Kindle or other eBook reader?

4 Responses

  1. ellie
    | Reply

    A well written piece Janet. It seems you wrote this piece on my behalf. I too am very attached to my books. My books also moved continents with me. But now on my visit to the USA I was talked into getting a kindle. I am on my second book on Kindle and it is wonderful, user friendly and so compact. and it saves book shelf space. BUT I prefer it the old way. I like to look at people’s bookcases and am proud when people examine mine. I like to leaf thru the book and feel it. Yet there is no going back…

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hi Ellie
      Yes, I love my Kindle when I travel. I wonder if there’ll come a time when bookshelves are passé. I hope not. A few things I miss with my Kindle: I can’t give away books, can’t loan them out, and can’t mark the typos I find (I always find) and list them inside the back cover!
      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Frank
    | Reply

    Janet Givens, these are not on my bookshelf! 🙂

    28 “Favorite” Books That Are Huge Red Flags
    These books are harmless. Until a friend or loved one tells you that one of them is their favorite.

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