“People are sometimes surprised to learn I’m not much into organization systems.”

Today we’re continuing our Other People’s Bookshelves series. View the previous posts here

Laura VanderkamToday we’re browsing the personal bookshelves of writer Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours, All the Money in the World, and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

I’m a big fan of Laura’s work. I love her gently contrarian take on dead-practical issues like how we spend our time, and I’m fascinated by Laura’s current baby, the Mosaic Project (and not just because it was partly inspired by this post). This project focuses on the careers of women who have big careers and kids at home. (Laura’s currently collecting time logs for the project: if you pull in six figures and have kids at home, head here for more info. I’d love to read about you when the book comes out in 2015!)

Now, on to Laura’s shelves. Enjoy!

Laura-Vanderkam-Library-Bookcaseslibrary built-ins, professionally styled

1. Tell us a little bit about your shelves.

Everyone’s room has some books and shelves (including mine, but it’s just a night stand — there are books everywhere!). Plus the basement for the kids. And we have about 10 boxes of books in the garage that have never made it in. What can I say? People send me a lot of books. I produce a lot of books. I like books. I’d like my kids to like books too.

We had these [library shelves, shown above] built in when we bought the house. This was professional styling because the decorator who did our house was using shots for her portfolio. The project took longer than expected, of course, and the craftsmen wanted to do the work the day I had my third kid. We pushed them off a few weeks – but I love the way they turned out. I store a lot of books here: travel books, novels, some extra copies of my books, and I have a shelf of “books by friends.”

Laura-Vanderkam-library-shelves-afterlibrary built-ins, after two years of real life

2. How are your books organized?

They aren’t terribly organized. People are sometimes surprised to learn I’m not much into organization systems for things. If I can find it when I need it I think that’s good enough. When I first put the books up in the library, I created a travel shelf, a few fiction shelves, a shelf of books I used while writing 168 Hours, a shelf of books I used while writing All the Money in the World, a shelf of books by friends (though there is overlap with all the other categories). I have shelves of my books, and translations of my books. But in 2 years, books have come in and out and not been put back in the exact same place.

Laura-Vanderkam-kids-booksleft: the 2-year-old’s shelves. The books are often pawed through and she likes to have them on the lowest shelf for easy access. right: the 6-year-old’s bookshelves

My office shelves have the books I’ve read recently or use frequently. The kids’ bookshelves have their books, but there’s a lot of rotating between them, as the 4-year-old and 2-year-old enjoy many of the same story books, and the 6-year-old isn’t opposed to being read those books either. If we’re hunting for a particular title for them, it could be in any of their rooms. Or the basement. We store kid books from the library in the basement until they go back.

Laura Vanderkam's basement shelf display for books and basement reading nookbasement book display and reading nook (not so much a shelf as a pile!)

3. Do you have a favorite shelf?

My books aren’t well organized enough to have a favorite shelf!

Laura-Vanderkam-office-booksthe office shelves feature books I have read or reviewed recently or need frequently (some reference). A more active shelf than the library one. 

4. Any special titles you’d like to point out to us?

In my office, I use two titles at least monthly for reference: Time for Life, by John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, and Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, by Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson, and Melissa Milkie. These books helped me discover the fascinating field of time use, and are what helped me see, originally, that the way we think we spend our time is often not the way we really spend our time.

For an excellent intro to Laura’s work, head over to Amazon and grab What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast for $2.99–then follow through with the time diary assignment. It will change your life.

PS. Here’s a peek at what I learned by keeping a time diary, and 17 productive ways to spend 5 minutes instead of checking your email (again).


Leave A Comment
    • Thanks! I really wanted real shelves, and I’m so glad I went to the trouble of getting them built in to the library. It makes it feel like my home, my space. (I assume you’re talking about those and not the kid ones I built with the classic furniture assembly Allen wrench…!)

  1. The concept of things being organized enough if you can find them might have just freed me for life. I’ve actually been thinking lately about how much pressure I feel to always organize when really, I usually can find what I need without any issue. Yeah, maybe it doesn’t look as pretty as the IKEA magazine but it’s serving its purpose. So, thanks for that.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.