My friend Cassie is going through a spiritual crisis, one that challenges her preconceived notions, defies her instincts, and makes her feel good yet oh-so-ashamed. Cassie, whose last name has been withheld for privacy, recently moved into a new apartment and, upon setting up one of her bookshelves, she tried her hand at a harmless little experiment. The results horrified her: Her books looked damn good organized by color.
When I visited her new apartment for the first time, I agreed. It was easy on the eyes and looked nice against her bright white walls. But I’ve never had an aversion to this controversial decor decision which, in the last decade, has taken over Instagram feeds and friends’ living rooms. It’s far from ubiquitous, but it’s popular enough to garner intense reactions, notably from those who think the practice borders on sacrilege.
In a recent group chat with me, Cassie, and my boyfriend, Cassie shared a tweet by acclaimed author Patrick Radden Keefe.
“Anytime I express my deep conviction that a bookshelf organized by *color* is pretty much a crime against humanity I turn out to be expressing that view to someone who organizes their books that way,” Keefe wrote. “I am that asshole. But also it is a crime.”
“I think I have to change my bookshelf,” Cassie told us. “I liked Say Nothing so much. I can’t handle Patrick Radden Keefe judging me.”
My boyfriend didn’t disagree with Keefe’s take. As a literal child of librarians, he finds the trend counterproductive at best and repulsive at worst. I’ve always dismissed such loathing as deeply pretentious, so I tried to reassure Cassie that this was just snobbery, plain and simple, and that she shouldn’t let it get to her.
Cassie replied, “I am a snob, which is why I’m so conflicted!”
But Cassie—reluctantly, ashamedly—loves the way her bookshelf looks, and now that working from home has become her new normal, she looks at that bookshelf a lot.
While books organized by color have its many loyalists and adherents, they’re regularly left playing defense against sneering critics who associate rainbow bookshelves with anti-intellectual frivolousness and social media brain worms that feed on aesthetics and aesthetics alone.
As recently as October, the New Yorker published “The Benefits of Organizing Your Books by Color,” a piece lampooning those who embrace this decor preference, complete with illustrations: “You will get a lot of likes on Instagram when you photograph your bookshelf;” “If you feel like a change, you can always turn your books around for the spine-in, pages-out look, since you’ve already dropped the pretense that books are for reading;” “You will realize that you have too many off-white books, so you’ll pull the ugliest ones to give away. On a whim, you will open one of them, ‘Walden,’ by Henry David Thoreau.”
This bit continues with, “You will read it. You will actually think about the things he’s saying. Wow! The inside of books can be cool, too—you would never have known!”
While it wasn’t meant to come across as malicious, it still suggests that something as harmless as organizing books by color is the passion of unserious girly girls with little interest in cracking open a book, only the shallow validation from other unserious girly girls on Instagram and Pinterest who also hoard books for the purpose of #aesthetics above all else.
It’s one thing to sincerely not like the way color coordination looks, it’s another to impose an entire narrative on someone’s intelligence or their appropriate level of respect for literature based on their decision to organize their books by color.
Of course, organizing books by color isn’t a signifier of one’s propensity to read a book. Nor is any organizational system for that matter. I love to buy books, but due to time constraints and other distractions, while my “to-read” list grows, I’m admittedly not the reader I used to be. My books aren’t organized by color, but that doesn’t mean I’m reading them any more than someone with a color-coded bookshelf.
I certainly don’t read as much as Esther Wang, former Jezebel senior reporter. She, like the aforementioned snobs, thought that anyone who organized their books in such a way wasn’t interested in reading, only the dopamine rush of a neatly arranged rainbow. So I was surprised to see a color-coded bookshelf in her living room when I last came by for a visit.
“An old roommate took it upon himself to color code my books without asking me, and at first I was annoyed,” Wang told me over the phone. “But then I was like, oh, it actually helps me find books.”
She noted that, contrary to popular assumptions about the color-coding brigade, she has read about 90 percent of the books on her shelf. That she or anyone else with color-coded shelves finds it necessary to reassure people of this is bleak. Jezebel Deputy Editor Jenna Amatulli, who organizes her books by color, told me that men have come to her apartment, looked at her shelves, and asked if she’s even read her books.
“I’m not someone who got like a master’s degree in library science,” Wang said. “I don’t remember the Dewey Decimal System. The thought of having to categorize my books by like author or topic, or author and topic... that would take so much time. Organizing books by color is lazy but it’s also effective. I personally have not had any issues finding a book I’m looking for just because my books aren’t organized like the New York fucking Public Library.”
Naturally, I decided to ask a friend of mine, a librarian with a master’s degree in library science, for her take on color-coded bookshelves.
“It’s not for me, but I have no problem with it!” she told me via text. “People should organize their books however helps them find what they’re looking for. Also, tons of people come into the library asking for books they don’t know the title of, but remember the color.”
This brings me to the most perplexing point about this controversy: We identify everyday items by color all the time. What makes books any different? We judge books their covers and identify them by their covers too. So, while organizing books by color would result in absolute chaos in, say, a public library, it could make a lot of sense in someone’s own personal library.
Yes, the use of books as mere decor and little else is certainly a real phenomenon that people care a lot about. The books one displays in their home can usually tell you a lot about them. So, admittedly the fact that dozens of Etsy retailers sell color-coded books in bulk—with gleeful reviewers showcasing the ways they’ve used them as glorified coasters, plant stands, and bookshelf filler—is as goofy as it is deceitful. But people filling their homes and office spaces with books they haven’t read and have little interest in reading is not a new practice and isn’t exclusive to color-coded tomes. The average person with books decorated by color is not buying them in bulk for Instagram, they’re engaging in, as Kristen Hohenadel noted for Slate back in 2014, a “harmless DIY decorating experiment” with “less of a commitment than painting a wall.” She added, “Surely those who judge the color-coded bookshelf as a sign of fashion-conscious frivolity must acknowledge that the bookshelf itself has always been a trophy case of sorts.”
They won’t, because that requires bookcase evangelists reckoning with the imperfect and even self-conscious ways they may curate their own shelves for public consumption. The average person likely doesn’t organize their entire collection by author or topic either. So, are the only real readers and real book lovers those who organize their books in a way that is deemed appropriate by a bunch of pseudo-intellectual snobs? I refuse to believe that all the people squawking over color-coded bookshelves maintain flawless book organization themselves anyway. Some, certainly, but not all.
Wang is content with her decision to keep her books organized by color, despite people giving her shit for it.
“Now that I am part of the color-coded bookshelf club, I realize how wrong my opinions were before,” said. “It has made me reflect on myself a little bit.”
As for Cassie, she has a ways to go before she feels comfortable with her aesthetic decision.
“I’m on a horrible zoom meeting with some horrible people and I just felt self-conscious about the rainbow shelves, which can be seen in the background,” she texted me yesterday. “I think it looks good! But I feel a lot of self-loathing about it.”
Of course, she shouldn’t. Color coordination looks nice. We often recognize our books by color. End of story. And perhaps those who care about how someone else organizes their books in their own home and judges them accordingly should consider taking up a pastime that doesn’t make them look like an absolute dickhead.