Home Decor

3 Good-Looking Ways to Organize Your Bookshelves

Plus one bonus style that we're still on the fence about.

June  1, 2020

Books are one of my absolute favorite things to decorate with. This isn’t to say I consider them purely decorative, it’s actually a testament to how much I love them. I put all my favorites on display—classics in a small stack by the entryway table (ah yes, welcome to my home; I studied Virginia Woolf in college, by the way), interior design tomes collect near the coffee table, five novels particularly close to my heart lean cover-out on floating shelves in the bedroom, and little books of poetry are scattered around like it's a scavenger hunt.

The largest collection of books, of course, lives on my ladder-style bookshelf that’s rapidly running out of extra space. Here, thrillers, celebrity memoirs, and the occasional non-fiction volume vie for real estate with to a bamboo plant I’ve managed to keep alive for three years, some photo frames, and vases of dried flowers. I restyle this shelf often, because it’s an easy way to change up decor with items I already have, all while rediscovering books I file away to read again.

Below, find three practical and good-looking ways to rearrange your bookshelf. I’ve tried them all, and will likely try them all again.

Photo by Ty Mecham

What You’ll Need:

  • Books in various colors and sizes
  • Small pieces of art
  • Potted plants
  • Small decorative objects like sculptures and vases

Arrange By Color

When this trend first surfaced, I admittedly wasn’t a huge fan. I tend to gravitate away from rainbows and more towards a specific color palette, but since I don’t judge books by their covers (ha!) the color palette of my bookshelf is already kind of doomed. Out of boredom one day, I decided to try color-coding my books, and was shocked by how much I loved it. It instantly conveys a layer of cohesion and lack of clutter, even if it is quite cluttered in reality. It also makes the previously utilitarian bookshelf look like a conscious design choice, which I love. You can color-code the objects on your shelf too, matching a yellow vase to the yellow books, and a blue frame with the blue books.

Mix Up the Stacks

In order to add dimension to bookshelves, interior designers and stylists always, always mix up the placement of books. By this, I mean arrange some vertically and some in horizontal stacks, alternating the stacks on the same shelves or arranging entire shelves differently so one is horizontal and the other vertical. Not only does this add visual interest, it frees up space on the shelves for more decorative objects to sit on and between the stacks. You can also group stacks by books you want to reread or those you haven’t yet read, that way they’re within reach when you finish the one you’re currently on.

Photo by Ty Mecham

Let Decorative Objects Dictate Book Placement

Another thing seasoned decorators do with bookshelves is add decorative objects of all shapes and sizes. Decide which sculptural objects, trailing plants, and pieces of art you want to add to the shelf, and begin placing them to your liking. Heavy items can do double duty as bookends, and leaning frames give natural separation to stacks. Add stacks of books around the objects (try to keep some negative space around them), and work in odd numbers (they’re more pleasing to the eye). Rearrange using your gut as a guide—you’re a stylist now!

Bonus: Turn Them Around

It might sound strange but…people do it. Just turn all the books on your shelf around so the pages face out and the spines face in. My mother thinks it “should be illegal,” and I tend to agree, but sometimes I like to be contrarian. By sometimes, I mean always. Try it out and tag us on Instagram.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Our bookshelf is arranged by subject (fiction, science-fiction, art, math, physics, computing) and language (three of them :)), mixed up stacks and decorative items. Works relatively well. I should probably try to arrange them by the author's name... I don't know... too much?”
— Anca H.

What's sitting on your bookshelves (besides books)? Tell us in the comments!

Grab your copy

It's here: Our game-changing guide to everyone's favorite room in the house. Your Do-Anything Kitchen gathers the smartest ideas and savviest tricks—from our community, test kitchen, and cooks we love—to help transform your space into its best self.

Grab your copy

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Terry K Milin
    Terry K Milin
  • /anne...
  • Anca Hienola Gaman
    Anca Hienola Gaman
  • Alison
  • jackthomas
Caroline Mullen

Written by: Caroline Mullen


Terry K. July 24, 2020
My arrangement is by size first, then color . I mix in books displayed horizontally and add some small touches of pottery, candles and a small picture frame.
/anne... July 24, 2020
My books are arranged by subject, and if appropriate (fiction) also by author.

If you arrange your books purely by colour or size, you will be judged :-)
Anca H. July 3, 2020
Our bookshelf is arranged by subject (fiction, science-fiction, art, math, physics, computing) and language (three of them :)), mixed up stacks and decorative items. Works relatively well. I should probably try to arrange them by the author's name... I don't know... too much?
Alison June 7, 2020
I've never managed to stick closely to any particular organizational scheme when it comes to my books--but my preferred approach is by subject matter. I admit to stacking books occasionally, especially art books, because I have too many books and not enough space. I do like the idea of mixing in a few decorative objects, to break up the visual space, but have to admit that when I see photos in magazines (because I have never seen this in any actual person's home) of bookshelves arranged by color, or spines-in, I have to assume that the people who own these books do not actually read or consult them. Maybe they don't even live there? Don't get me started on decorators who buy old books to get the "vintage" look......
Caroline M. June 7, 2020
I currently have mine arranged by color, and I actually find I remember where they are because I’ve ended up associating books with their spine color (particularly favorite ones, of course). It’s no dewey decimal system, but it’s pleasing to look at & works for me!
Alison June 8, 2020
well, that is what matters!
jackthomas June 1, 2020
Nah, the only right way to arrange books is in alphabetical order by author last name. (You had to be expecting this comment writing this article lol)
Smaug June 1, 2020
Classifying by subject matter can also be helpful. As a rule, decorators should be kept away from books. Stacking books is what you do when your system has broken down completely.
Caroline M. June 1, 2020
Lol FINE I suppose that works too...
Caroline M. June 1, 2020
Smaug, this is hilarious. You're not wrong. Yet here I am... stacking up my books...
Smaug June 1, 2020
Well that system didn't last long.
janet July 24, 2020
But grouped first, surely??