A playroom created by Katherine Vernot-Jonas includes this playful tree-shaped unit to display childrens books and toys.  PICTURE: WASHINGTON POST
A playroom created by Katherine Vernot-Jonas includes this playful tree-shaped unit to display childrens books and toys. PICTURE: WASHINGTON POST
MAKEOVER: The bookcase after being decluttered and rearranged. Getting rid of extra stuff crammed on top and arranging books by colour and size helps create visually pleasing shelves. PICTURE: WASHINGTON POST
MAKEOVER: The bookcase after being decluttered and rearranged. Getting rid of extra stuff crammed on top and arranging books by colour and size helps create visually pleasing shelves. PICTURE: WASHINGTON POST

Washington - I love books. Not just reading them, but how they smell, the weight of them in my hands, the feel of the pages when I turn them. So naturally, I have a lot, culled from all stages of my life.

Even the ones I didn’t like and have no intention of revisiting (I’m looking at you, Moby-Dick), I am compelled to keep.

After all, the books we read are more than just things. Somehow, they become a part of who we are. A little piece of our soul.

“I think when you spend time with a book, when you invest the time to sit and read something for however long it takes, it’s very hard to let go of that,” says Jill Goldberg, the founder of Hudson Interior Designs in Boston. “It’s just like a little kid with a stuffed animal that they want to hold on to.”

At some point, though, I realised that the way my books were crammed into every available space, spilling haphazardly out of my bookshelf and stacked on the floor, didn’t accurately reflect their importance to me. They also looked like an afterthought, when really, they’re anything but. I was in desperate need of an intervention.

I sent photos of my “bad bookcase” to several designers and professional organisers to get their suggestions of how best to display my book collection.

Then I spent an afternoon pulling everything off the shelves, trying different arrangements and identifying what should stay in the living room and what could be boxed away. The marked-up copy of Shakespeare’s complete works that saw me through college is now stashed in the basement because I almost never find a reason to crack it open. I moved cookbooks off the shelves and into a cabinet in the kitchen, and relegated piles of magazines to the recycling bin.

No one I spoke to suggested getting rid of books, which was good, because that’s not an option. This wasn’t an exercise in de-cluttering; it was an attempt to find a way to cohabit with my books and let them shine. Because, like I said, I love them.

That’s a sentiment Tracy Morris, principal designer at Tracy Morris Design in Washington, often hears from her clients. A book lover herself, Morris is happy to incorporate books into design.

“As long as you do it tastefully, so it’s beautiful and clean, you can put them anywhere your heart desires,” she says. “Books are an enormous part of creating texture and warmth in a house.”

And displaying books creatively, in combination with other meaningful treasures from your travels or childhood, can turn them from clutter into a conversation piece, says Andreas Charalambous, principal architect at Forma Design in Washington.

“If you provide someone with the infrastructure or backdrop to place things in an orderly manner, it ends up being pleasing to look at. You don’t want to just hide these things behind a closet door, because then they lose their importance.”

So how can bibliophiles strike that balance between hanging on to their treasures and keeping their house from looking like something that should be featured on an episode of Hoarders? Here are suggestions from professionals on how to incorporate your book collection into your home design:

* Organise in a way that works for you.

Books can be organised alphabetically, or by size, subject, author or colour. As long as it reflects how you think about and retrieve your books, it’s fine, says Cynthia Lindsey, president of Organising Ease in Nashville.

The methodical reader might want to start in the top left corner and go across each shelf in alphabetical order, either by title or author. Those who are more expressive and don’t care about the content may choose to sort the books by colour, starting with red and going through the spectrum to violet, creating a rainbow of book spines, Goldberg says. This can work well for people who have a lot of books, says Goldberg, who helped a family with hundreds of books stage them by colour in their home library.

Other clients prefer to display books of one colour, such as white or blue, to create a calming feel, Morris said.

But some people prefer to organise their books by subject, to make them easier to find. It’s hard for me to imagine separating the brown-spined Jane Eyre from her black-spined Brontë cousins.

That’s fine, too, Morris says. She suggests ordering books by size within those categories to keep the finished product looking neat. Either put the tallest books on the outside and work towards the smaller, or put the tallest in the middle of the shelf and have them get smaller as they fan out.

* Find a way to neutralise them.

Amy Trager, a professional organiser based in Chicago, suggested flipping the books around so the pages are facing out, instead of the spine, to cut down on the visual clutter of the books’ different colours and sizes.

That only works, of course, if you don’t need to quickly access specific books, but it’s a great way to add texture and a neutral, toned-down feeling to your space.

Trager had a client who needed to keep her books in the living room but hated the way they looked. She created covers for each of her recessed shelves out of thin paperboard. When she wanted a particular book, she could pull the covers down, but when they were up, it looked like a solid coloured wall, fading into the background.

* Mix it up.

Blend horizontal and vertical stacks of books to create visual interest on your shelves, Morris suggests. Arrange vertical books on the ends of the shelf, with horizontal stacks in the middle. Or use a few art books stacked on their sides as a bookend. Art or coffee table books are perfect for stacking horizontally because they are often too tall for the shelf.

Stacking books horizontally on top of your vertical books, though, like I had done to cram more books into the space, is a no-no, Morris and Lindsey agree. Duly noted.

* Integrate some meaningful or beautiful objects to break up the books.

Those horizontally stacked books can be a great place to put a small frame or vase, says Morris. Choose a variety of items or art that is meaningful to you, and try to keep things around the same size. If you are using framed photos or art, use the same colour frame throughout.

Group objects on top of the bookcase in sets of odd numbers, such as three or five. Or, Lindsey adds, keep the top of the bookcase empty for a clean, uncluttered look.

* Find balance.

If you have a bookcase with more than one column of shelves (like mine), Morris suggests using the same pattern in opposite corners to create a balanced effect. For example, on the top left and bottom right shelves you could pull the middle books out and turn them so they are horizontal, then put a picture on top.

* Think beyond the bookcase.

Book collections don’t have to be limited to a traditional shelving unit.

Morris says she once had a client who had a shelf across the top of a headboard for a line of shallow books. She has also seen books stacked above and below coffee tables and on ladders that lean against the wall.

Lindsey encourages people to get creative with the placement and design of their books to enhance their homes.


Tips for organising your books:

* Get stuff out from under the bookcase.

* Mementoes are better used interspersed throughout the shelves.

* Don’t cram things on top of the books.

* Move cookbooks to the kitchen, where they’re used.

* Arrange books by colour or size to make the shelf look less cluttered.

* Combine vertical and horizontal stacks for visual interest.

* Use photos with matching frames to break things up but not make it too busy.

* Create balance by making opposite corners match. – Washington Post